Illustrations by Willa Köerner

The Proactive Future of Online Experiences

Reacting to beeps and buzzes is one way to connect with each other — but what if we could engineer a more productive space for engaging in the digital realm?

Everyone can relate to the “check-everything” impulse — that feeling you get when you flip open your laptop or unlock your phone and immediately feel the need to read through email, see how many favorites your earlier tweet got, respond to that text message, the list goes on…

This impulse is a reactive behavior, in that we’re always waiting and responding, rather than making pre-meditated, proactive choices. It bums me out. Why have we come to use the expansive, near-magical network of the Internet in such a boring and defensive way? As I see it, there are three fundamental problems with the way the Internet exists now that make it an incredibly difficult place to spend time proactively and productively: 1) the constant stream of social media to which we’ve become acclimated and addicted, 2) our inability to personally filter or prioritize experiences within the vastness of the internet, and 3) the current hardware and software we use to connect to the internet (laptops, phones, and browser windows) limit our ability to have rich, meaningful experiences.

As we work towards building the future we want to see, the question that I’m left with is:

Could it be possible to structure our time online in a more proactive way, where we “signed on” with specific experiences or accomplishments in mind? Would this make our [digital] lives more fulfilling?

As I see it, yes. But before that can happen, there are a few issues that need to be resolved. Currently, “digital” experiences are perceived as layers that get added to various “real-life” or “physical” experiences — and we need to change that. Offline, there aren’t many situations where showing up somewhere and waiting to see what happens is considered a rational thing to do. IRL, we make plans. We hear about interesting events or friends’ parties, we decide we want to go, we mark our calendars, and then when the time comes, we show up. Or, we hear about a great book or a new movie, decide we want to read or see it, and take appropriate action. Usually, we have a good idea of how we’ll spend our time once we get around to executing our pre-meditated plans— relaxing, socializing, learning, exercising, whatever. Since we consciously plan these engagements in advance of experiencing them, we have expectations and motivations regarding how they’ll unfold and what we’ll get out of them, which helps us know how to act. And, because we’re prepared to be consciously engaged, doing these things makes us feel fulfilled.

In real life, we’re proactive with our time. Why isn’t this the case online?

“The Stream” has introduced a new type of human behavior, one where we’re lazy and complacent. We expect social media to act like a digital butler of sorts — one who’s preparing and delivering relevant experiences and information straight to us, anticipating our every craving, always lurking nearby with something else to offer up. We are not critical of this butler. In fact, we didn’t hire him based on any credentials or any prior experience — he simply showed up in our lives and we got used to having him around. We used to acknowledge these Jeeves-like characters of the digital realm (literally, with askjeeves.com), but now they’re baked in, invisible. Even though we don’t tend to see them, they’re there, constantly serving us with candy-like tidbits of fat and processed sugar disguised as information that’s relevant to our lives. As it turns out, this isn’t really filling.

What are we doing online now? What could we be doing soon?

I’m interested in exploring how new technologies and approaches might make digitally based experiences more meaningful, so that we may begin to engage with the Internet in more proactive and productive ways. Currently, there are relatively few online experiences that engage us in substantial enough ways that we’re likely to plan these connected courses of action in advance. Outside of a few specific forms of engagement — examples of those being taking an online classes, reading the news at one particular website, getting deep into an online gaming session, and perhaps certain pre-meditated, indulgent sessions of Netflix binge-watching — it’s my belief that we don’t tend to consider most digitally based experiences in terms of how they’ll satisfy us. Instead, we see the digital realm as a layer to add on to whatever we’re experiencing in the physical realm, largely as entertainment or distraction. Perhaps this is why reading an actual book feels so good — we decide to read it, then make time to sit down with it, distractions-free. It’s rewarding and relaxing. Why can’t we get this feeling online?

As I see it, there are three fundamental problems with the way the internet exists now that make it an incredibly difficult place to spend time proactively and productively. Let me extrapolate:

Problem 1: the Stream has a strong under-tow, and it’s sucking us in.

First, there’s the problem of the Stream, which social media companies use to aggregate user-generated content and data to produce the ultimate addictive, inculcating, hypnotic experience. These companies’ entire business models are built around keeping you entertained and engaged so that you’re unlikely to notice how little you’re aware of the information (or junk) you’re consuming. The Stream is what makes us approach our time online in a reactive way, with pings and pop-up notifications assaulting the user at a startling pace — read me, share me, like me, look at me! The stream needs to be fed, and it wants to feed you. It never sleeps and it never stops.

Writer Hossein Derakhshan spent six years in an Iranian prison for being an outspoken blogger, and when he was finally freed a few months ago, one of the biggest shocks he experienced was how the Stream had completely altered (or, destroyed) the Internet he knew and loved as an early blogger. As he sees it, the Stream has caused the web to become much more passive and much less meaningful, inserting entertainment where there used to be engagement:

The web was not envisioned as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.
When I log on to Facebook, my personal television starts. All I need to do is to scroll: New profile pictures by friends, short bits of opinion on current affairs, links to new stories with short captions, advertising, and of course self-playing videos. I occasionally click on like or share button, read peoples’ comments or leave one, or open an article. But I remain inside Facebook, and it continues to broadcast what I might like. This is not the web I knew when I went to jail. This is not the future of the web. This future is television.

Because Derakhshan was not slowly immersed in the stream, he has the unique viewpoint of seeing these social structures as they actually are— as algorithmically-perfected machines in which we are all judged and assimilated and surveilled by companies that will continue to have greater and greater control over our time, our beliefs, and our lives. And the worst part is, we’re consuming these versions of our assimilated selves with voracious hunger — binge-watching our own lives as though we’re all the stars of one incredibly expansive (and pretty boring) reality TV show.

In its current iteration, The Stream is slowly brainwashing us. It didn’t start out that way, however —in the Stream’s original conception, it was a genius solution to a legitimate design problem. By giving us a way to organize, discover and share online content in a social setting, the web could be opened up and enjoyed in a truly exciting new way. This leads me to the second fundamental problem with the Internet, which is actually a lot more of a conundrum (or even an attribute), and existed before the Stream and will continue to exist forever, exponentially:

Problem 2: There’s an infinite amount of incredibly interesting stuff online, and we have very few ways to make sense of it all.

If social media sites were wiped off the face of the earth tonight, how would we know which links to click on tomorrow? The overwhelming vastness of the digital realm is multiplied by that fact that nearly every bit of content contained therein can be accessed by anyone with a connection, instantaneously (well, accessed by anyone functioning outside of censorship’s grip, at least). Because of this, and due to the fact that the extensiveness of the web makes it incredibly difficult to catalogue in a way that makes it easily navigable, we need systems and structures that help surface links that are relevant to us.

For a while now, social media has presented itself as the perfect networking tool for surfacing, ranking, sharing and distributing digital content. However, as I touched on earlier, the way that social media companies have begun manipulating the Stream with algorithms specially designed to fulfill their own propaganda and bolster their revenue has caused the beautiful, open nature of social media sites to wilt. We’re left staggering around the crater left by the meteorite that is the attention economy, which blasted in around the time that the Stream took off and left us all screaming at the top of our lungs, wondering why nobody’s listening.

This brings me to one final fundamental problem we’re now experiencing, which, in the search for engineering more proactive and productive online experiences, seems like the easiest of all to solve:

Problem 3: The containers through which we access the internet are not built to sustain meaningful, contemplative experiences.

It’s time to create new tools — both hardware and software — that allow us to publish, create, and engineer online experiences that feel substantial enough to hold our attention. An example of why we need to do this: Paul Ford’s now-notorious 38,000-word interactive essay/experience, What is Code? is an astoundingly cool piece, but how many people were able to get through the entire thing and experience it in all its glory? Based on people who I’ve spoken about it with, very few. Nathan Bashaw explores how the modes by which we absorb content can make or break the experience in Content and its Container:

There are a few reasons why I rarely read ultra-long articles (or books) in a desktop web browser:
1) On the web, I normally find things and read them in a single sitting, the moment I find them. If the article is too long, it breaks my routine, and I don’t know what to do.
2) I keep at least 10 tabs open, many of them with (1)’s and (2)’s piling up, constantly reminding me that there’s new stuff out there. It’s tempting — and trivially easy — to abandon ship.
3) Honestly, I find it hard to relax with my laptop. I’d rather rest my hands, but every few seconds I need to scroll. For some reason I don’t have this problem on my phone.
I want a future where we can have amazing interactive essays and books, but I don’t think we currently have a good container for that type of content. Furthermore, until we do have a better container, I don’t think it’ll be possible for the medium to truly flourish.

I very much agree with Bashaw. Right now, it’s quite difficult to experience the Internet, simply because our hardware and software isn’t built in a way that lets us relax and enjoy whatever it is we’d like to home in on. However, I do believe that our technology is evolving in the right direction, and soon, containers that let us experience connected content in rich, all-absoring ways will begin to become pervasive.

As an example of what I mean, let’s look at virtual reality technology. Currently in its budding stage, filmmakers, game designers and other creators of connected content are just starting to get truly excited by the possibilities of this new medium. Vrse, for example, is a new type of VR-focused production company. They’ve created short documentaries filmed in 3D in partnership with the United Nations to immerse their audience in the worlds of the film’s subjects. I was able to watch one of these films, Clouds over Sidra, and it was truly an experience — wearing a VR headset, you are isolated and immersed, truly forced to stay in the zone for the duration of the film and let the narrative of the story wash over you. Since I was wholly absorbed and felt immersed in the experience, the level of empathy I felt for the people in the film — who seemed to be moving all around me, from every angle, almost as though I could reach out and touch them — was overwhelming. In short, it was a meaningful and active digital experience.

As new technologies like VR continue to push the possibilities of immersive engagement, our digital-content container problem will slowly dissipate. As for the problem of the Stream, it’s up to us, citizens of the internet, to disrupt our patterns of reactive engagement and demand more. Living life can be as much about not doing things as it is about doing things — I fully recommend taking the time to optimize your social media streams in ways that allow you to benefit from them in real ways (read: the art of the unfollow). There’s really no other way to solve the problem of the Stream other than self control. Sorry!

So finally, the problem that I’m most interested in — and excited by — is number two: There’s an infinite amount of incredibly interesting stuff online, and we have very few ways to make sense of it all. This is an incredible burden to have to bear, and one that I’m personally invested in as a digitally focused curator. I’ve been exploring the ways that the internet can be approached from a curatorial perspective for a while now, from my last job working on SFMOMA’s digital engagement and content strategy, to my time in residency at Gray Area’s Art + Technology Theater, to my current gig as the Director of Curation and Social at Kickstarter. If there’s one thing that can be taken from it all, it’s that people crave meaningful digital experiences that allow them to connect the dots between their own lives and each other’s lives.

Curating is about connecting the dots proactively in ways that open up new doors for new experiences.

As we become increasingly thirsty for meaning in the digital realm, it is my hope that the Stream will start to dry up. In its place, curated groupings of content will allow networks to spread ideas and discussion in ways that are impactful. This future of proactive online experiences is entirely possible and very much in our grasp — we just have to make sure that the people who can build it know that we want it. Can we build a better web? Yes we can. So let’s do it. The future is now.