World Narrow Web

The World Wide Web is big, very big. During the age of the desktop, most of how we experienced the web was through a ‘web browser’. Now, in the age of the mobile web, much of that traffic has shifted to apps with feed upon feed. These feeds make it easier to follow many different sources but are engineered for you to consume more and more content. The infinite scroll is a product of this and everyone is attempting to discover the right algorithm for maximum consumption. Much of this is because of the advertising based business model that most websites have operated. People pay with the currency of their attention/time or personal data so that you can be better served ads.

Problematic

I still remember the first time that I experienced ‘high speed’ Internet. It was in my elementary school library and there was one computer that had the ‘WAVE’. This was how Rogers, a Toronto based telecom, branded their Internet service, which was the first cable ISP in North America. People used to often refer to Internet browsing as ’surfing the web’, an obvious reference to ‘channel surfing’ the television. To surf channels was to channel flip or browse to see what’s on. You’d often end up watching something that you didn’t intend to watch and then get sucked into the following show. The Internet is structured in a similar way and many people consume a lot of content and information that they would rather not be consuming.

We get pleasure from consuming information and content, which for me is similar to the pleasure I used to get when shopping. As a teenager, I remember that rush of a feeling when I bought my first stereo, a new CD, a new video game, new clothes and even when my parents bought a new car. The feeling was often fleeting and soon I’d be chasing that feeling again and would sometimes even think the next pleasure purchase could change my life. Shopping is engineered to play with our emotions and it took me a number of years to reengineer my brain to somewhat stop the pursuit of consumerism.

However, what I didn’t realize until a few years ago was that I replaced that pursuit of things with the pursuit of information. Environmentally, it’s a pursuit that’s less impactful on our planet but it still retains much control over one’s life. And it makes sense, since most of Western society has made the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. It could be said that the car was the most impactful product of the Industrial Age. It shifted how our cities were built, where we lived, how we worked, and with whom we socialized. Now the smartphone, a mobile Internet vessel, has become our society’s most desirable product. It is transforming our society in even greater ways then the car did.

“Are people getting what they want out of their relationship with the Internet and how can it be made better?”

Objectives

What makes a library so effective for studying and/or consuming information?

First, you must make a commitment of going to the library, which for some takes a while to get to. Most people I would say go to study or go to look for a book on a subject. Yes, there might be people that go to browse but I believe that more so takes place at bookstores rather then libraries. All libraries have a limited amount of books that they can inventory but most are part of a network with a wider selection. You could go there and look up a topic on a computer or talk to a librarian for suggestions.

Often, I’ll look up one book but then discover more on the same topic because of how the Dewey decimal system organizes books. I can only take out a limited number of books and I’m only allowed to borrow them for a limited amount of days. Myself, I probably only read half of the books that I borrow but I know that would be a lot lower if there was no due date. There are many disadvantages that it has over the Internet but I believe it’s a model to study to look at how it encourages focus.

The objective is to create a system to consume digital information that will encourage healthier information/media consumption.

Methodology

Every person is different and this system needs to be flexible in order to create a type of information/media diet that suits the user. It includes you being able to control different aspects of your digital consumption:

Time: How much time you’d like to spend doing a certain activity. Setting an intention at the beginning is important if you want to stay focused on a certain task. Rather than simply say focus on reading for two hours straight, it offers the option to suggest taking a regular for a few minutes.

Device: Most people have more then one digital device in their lives. The smartphone consumes more and more or our time but other devices such as tablets, laptops, TV’s and desktops still remain prevalent in western society. Each device has strengths and weaknesses for focusing on different activities.

Location: This is probably the aspect that people consider the least when consuming information/media. Generally, most households have different rooms for different activities for a reason. Relaxing is most conducive to the living room while sitting on a couch with your feet up. Focusing on writing a paper might be best at the kitchen table while for others it might be at the library. Sometimes, you’re not always able to control your environment when you have to share you space with others but it an important aspect to bring awareness to.

Audio: For some repetitive tasks some people need to listen to a talk podcast in the background in order to focus while other can watch movies. Focusing on a complex essay might require absolute silence while others might focus better with classical music. Almost all of our digital devices today have microphone in them and they could measure not only noise levels but also tempo of any music being played.

Quantity: When dealing with a medium such as the Internet, the quantity on content being displayed is crucial for healthier information/media consumption. People’s expectation for personalized algorithms with their interests and their friend’s recommendations have become the norm. It is important to incorporate these into a feed but there is also a role of an editor to decide the most important stories of the day. Dependent on the intended time for the activity, the feed needs to adjust the amount of content to be displayed. It is also important to incorporate content that was previously saved so that they don’t become an insurmountable reading list.

Developing algorithms can be a delicate balance between suggesting content and opportunity for new discovery. People don’t want to feel like a robot and have their freedom of choice taken away but I believe that there’s a group of people beginning to discover the value in limited choice. The limited choice of information is what made newspapers so relevant in society over the last century but we want still some personalization that the Internet is able to deliver. When asking most people if they prefer their pre-Internet consumption to post-Internet, I believe most would still say post.

Results, Discussion and Conclusion

The exploration for this project was very broad. It looked at Internet usage as a whole and how to encourage healthier content consumption. There are so many different touch-points where we use the Internet that it’s difficult to know the most effective point of focus. The Internet is also so integral to our modern lives that to create a completely closed system would be too restrictive. Therefore, the result is an Internet content consumption system that is intended to learn your habits and encourage a healthier information/media diet.

Organizing the different types of content and modes

Rather then being focused on the limitless space of the Internet, ‘Narrow’ will prioritize focus and quality over the quantity and “free”. It is our time that is limited and it is time that isn’t valued enough in our digital media landscape. If the audience starts to realize that then it will begin to shift that landscape. Narrow is a distribution platform where you can follow different sources but also save articles found across the Internet. What would differentiate itself from other platforms is setting an intention for each session and an adaptive algorithm that’d learn the user’s behaviour over time.

The first act that the user performs is to set an intention on the upcoming session. They decide which mode they want for how long. However, the time will be an approximate target as being cut off in the middle of a sentence creates an unwanted anxiety. It will also suggest taking some breaks if choosing to focus for 2 hours. Over time it will learn how the user consumes content and will adjust its encouragement accordingly. It a fine balance between encouragement and nagging but there are proven techniques for changing a bad habit.

Narrow has three different modes: Focus, Browse and Narrow.

Focus provides a list of saved content and a distraction free consumption environment. It will shift the order of the list to prioritize news content that might be timelier. It could also suggest an article that’s shorter in length to be read if a limited time is available. Users often start a story but then will get distracted even if it’s something they want to read. Recording data such as reading time will allow the algorithm to further learn the users patterns.

Focus Mode

Browse is a mode that is to be used with caution. If a user is consistently spending more time browsing then consuming then the algorithm will nudge them towards a healthier ratio. Browse also won’t be showing an infinite scroll worth of content but enough to feel like they’re discover something new and interesting. Also, if a user doesn’t click on a source that they’re following over a certain amount of time then it would suggest un-following it. From time to time it’s healthy to maintain a follow list and make sure it doesn’t pill up to high.

Browse Mode

Narrow is mix of Focus and Browse while also including important information like family birthdays and breaking news. Over time it will hopefully become the default destination and where the right balance between discovery and focus is found. It will be something that the AI will need to learn over time and its distribution formula will be unique to each user. Narrow will be the mode that proves to be the most value added to the user.

Narrow Mode

This type of product would most likely work best as a freemium business model. Advertising could support the free version of Narrow but that would conflict encouraging for users focus. Having users value both the content and their time is to remain the key focus. Those are both crucial for developing healthier information/media consumption. Establishing partnerships with content providers would be an important development for its long-term viability. There are a lot of different financial approaches that would have to be explored. Micro-payments could be one of those approaches that’d achieve the goals of the product.

Having users value both the content and their time would be to remain the key focus.

One of the biggest challenges would be maintain the proper balance between control and discovery. People don’t want to feel like robots where free will is taken from them but it’s clear that something must change. And one could argue that today’s digital media landscape doesn’t provide free will where it is engineered for a certain type of content consumption. I feel more like a robot when I’m endlessly scrolling through feeds and creepily type those four letters of ‘F-A-C-E’ with my left hand without any intention of doing so.


Originally written for the class “DGR4219: Design graphique et interactivité I” at Université du Québec à Montréal in January, 2016.

References

  1. Addicted to Distraction by Tony Schwartz. (New York Times) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/opinion/sunday/addicted-to-distraction.html
  2. Kids These Days: They Might Just Pay for Digital Content by David Sanderson, Laurent Colombian. (Advertising Age) http://adage.com/article/guest-columnists/t/301513/
  3. The magic that makes Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists so damn good by Adam Pasick (Quartz) http://qz.com/571007/the-magic-that-makes-spotifys-discover-weekly-playlists-so-damn-good/
  4. Can’t Put Down Your Device? That’s by Design by Natasha Singer (New York Times) http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/technology/personaltech/cant-put-down-your-device-thats-by-design.html