The rise of the discovery network.

Have you noticed it? There’s a new way we browse the web, a new way we manage the absurd amounts of information available at our fingertips.

The internet has been a constantly evolving revolution allowing us to access a monumental stockpile of articles, books, music, videos, and every single thing in between. A perpetually growing collection of nearly all of human knowledge that makes The Great Library of Alexandria look like a dollhouse. Yet, unlike the 200 B.C. library, the internet is open to any human on earth with a phone or a computer. This simple fact has brought upon us the largest revolution humanity has ever seen, but there’s a major issue.

The biggest advantage we have is also our biggest problem we face today, there is simply way too much content on the web. Humans just simply can’t navigate it all, but that’s not the human way of doing things. We build tools to do things we couldn’t possibly dream of doing with our bare hands, how else could we say that we’ve played golf on the moon? So, in this desperate hour, we turned to our only solace, robots. Search engines to be exact. These were our primary tool to help us bushwhack through the jungle of webpages with no way to find them without knowing the exact address. This is still the basic machinery behind finding information online today: need to know an actor’s age? Google it and you’ll find links to their IMDB and Wikipedia pages. But how do you search for something you didn’t even know you were looking for?

Today, we’re slowly changing how people browse the internet and many aren’t even realizing it. The internet is decreasingly about searching and more about finding, no matter the form of media. Algorithms are helping human curiosity by allowing us to find what we want, without the hassle of having to find the right question to ask. Netflix is a perfect example of this, and it’s one of the many reasons why the service has grown to become bigger than most cable companies are today. Find a friend who doesn’t know too much about Netflix and convince him/her to sign up for the free trial, they are probably going to be disappointed at first. But then, something interesting will happen, around the middle of the 30 days they have, they will find the perfect show. Great, now your buddy can’t stop talking about House of Cards! But why were they disappointed at first? What changed their mind?

To answer that question you have to think like someone who just got Netflix and doesn’t really know much about it. Odds are, they will view it like we see Amazon for products or iTunes for music, a place where everything is available. The truth is, it isn’t. There’s a lot of stuff missing from the catalog (especially here in France). And what is likely to happen when they first use it? They will probably search for a show they never finished or they heard about, and see it’s missing. After watching a few shows or movies that they know or that looks interesting to them, Netflix takes the wheel and that’s the moment they are hooked. An algorithm has just given them a great show and will continue to do so for as long as there is content that fits their taste.

My mother’s Netflix homepage, she has had it for just a few months.

Here’s the interesting part, there are more and more websites that use the exact same method of helping users find what they did not actively seek.

This is what I call a “discovery network”, and it’s absolutely everywhere once you know where too look. In an era of content, you need a way to get precisely what you want. Without knowing you ever even wanted it. The entire goal of this approach is to incite the user to go “oh wow this looks cool!” every time they open your webpage. Remember mixtapes being advertised on television? That’s basically what this is, but it’s YOUR mixtape made specifically for the music YOU like. Except this doesn’t apply only to music: it’s how Facebook organises your news feed, Medium suggests articles, and how Google is starting to do things. However, here’s where things get interesting, in an age of math and code determining what to show us, the human touch is more important than ever. Looking for apps in the Google play store or Apple App store? You’ll get a screen giving you recommendations based on your installs and reviews. But there is still an “editor’s choice” or “staff picks”, because adding a bit of humanity can never hurt. No one knows for sure where the web will be in 5 years, but I think we will search less and discover more.


Here are some examples of different uses of this recent trend:

This very website uses an algorithm to help us discover articles!
Google Play Music uses it in 3 ways: to automatically generate playlists based on time of day, to create “radio” playlists based on what you listen to, and simply to recommend new albums or artists you may not know. There is also a human curated aspect in the “playlists” section.
StumbleUpon.com is one of the first websites to use this paradigm, although without a news feed and with a bit more randomization.
Pandora.com (unfortunately not available in France, so I had to use what Google images gave me) is one of the first applications of a discovery network in music. It’s huge success was later copied by nearly all other music streaming platforms.
Twitter’s new “highlights” page helps users find what may be of interest to them in the sea of information. There is also a “what you missed” section that pops up if the user has missed any significant tweets.
Google Now is completely based on this idea of finding before you search. It offers everything from weather, sports scores, articles, package delivery times, plane and train times (based on Gmail confirmations) and so much more.
Google Now on Tap is a way of finding search results for items on the phones screen, it’s not exactly a source of discovery but I still included it in this list due to it’s emphasis on finding without searching.

In conclusion, this is a much more common occurrence than we believe it to be. Sometimes machine curated content works best, sometimes it’s hand-picked by humans. It all depends on the context of the website. One thing is for sure, this style of information management is here to stay and will likely be used in many more interesting ways in the near future. The internet continues to grow and change in interesting ways which help make it more enjoyable for all of us, we live in an era where fads aren’t just colors, patterns, and slang but entire algorithms managing the content millions will consume. Only time will tell us which method is best and what effect it has on society. Right now, the message is clear: stop searching, start finding, and keep discovering.

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