Will semantic cards replace the URL as the web’s sharing mechanism?

Something interesting is happening on the mobile web these days: cards (also referred to as “Card UI”). Twitter Cards, Google Now cards, even Pinterest boards are an example of this new way of sharing information. Cards are bite-sized, self-contained, interactive units of graphical real estate presented within digital apps. Khoi Vinh defines it well:

A card is a single unit of content or functionality, presented in a concise visual package. More advanced cards use that form to surface content or functionality from other apps, and allow users to interact with that content or functionality directly in the context of where a user encounters the card.

Interlinking apps through cards

Currently, cards are mostly used within apps to present information and provide interactive functions within those apps. Things get a lot more fun, however, once cards can be shared between different apps. To see an early example of this you can see how Google Now is starting to support third party cards. Each morning, you can get your day’s Spotify song recommendations through a Google Now card and play it directly from the card, without leaving Google Now. The Guardian provides cards on Google Now through which you can read today’s headlines straight from the card. In a sense, apps like Google Now are becoming curation vehicles for cards from other apps — similar to how websites link to other websites through URLs, apps are staring to link to other apps through cards.

Facebook, native content, and cards

Facebook has been making some interesting moves lately which I think positions them well for a future driven by cards. The company has been moving towards “native content” — basically Facebook is starting to host content, like videos and articles, natively on its own platform rather than linking out to third party websites. They’ve already made this shift with video content — by providing incentives for content creators to upload video directly to Facebook rather than linking to outside apps like YouTube, Facebook has quickly become a major native provider of video content.

Facebook is making a similar move with text content like articles and news. This year the company announced a new program in which they’ll host articles from select publishers like the New York Times directly on Facebook, so readers will no longer have to click out to the New York Times website to consume content, you’ll read articles directly within cards in your News Feed. It seems that Facebook’s intent is to have better control of the user experience within cards, and bringing content within their platform is a logical step in this direction.

Walled gardens or a new mobile web?

Some worry that the trend towards native content within social networks points to a future of walled gardens, where the large networks try to keep users within their own proprietary platforms, ala AOL circa 1991. I think the future is quite the opposite. Platform operators will always have strong incentives to enable easy and powerful sharing mechanisms to sustain themselves and grow.

The card design pattern actually unlocks powerful new possibilities for enabling sharing between apps. It’s easy to imagine a future in which cards can be passed between apps, enabling bite-sized consumption of content or limited use of functionality without having to install full applications. Friends may pass you cards, apps may recommend you cards, or you may find cards through search engines — all of this enables a low-friction discovery layer between apps.

Semantic cards

Today we share URLs with each other, copying and pasting them in messaging apps or on social apps, leading our friends to web resources containing media and functionality. Tomorrow we’ll tell cards with whom or how we’d like to share things, and they’ll help us reach the right people, in the right way, and at the right time. You may share a funny video on Facebook through a card, and the card will reach your friends through different apps, across various devices like on a watch or within a VR session, and according to different notification preferences. Most likely, your friends won’t click over to the Facebook website to view the video, they’ll watch the video directly within a card wherever they may be. They in turn may share the card with their friends, and may interact within the card by commenting, chatting, or remixing.

Achieving all of this will require negotiation and synchronization between cards, receiving apps, devices, and user preferences / user context, an ecosystem of standards and practices that will evolve over time. As we move towards the semantic web (“internet of things”), I think that semantic cards will simply be a part of this evolution.

Semantic cards and the future of advertising

The implications of cards on the online advertising industry are huge. Clearly, the shift towards native advertising is already in full swing — advertisers are now creating content around narratives and social interactions with their customers, blurring the lines between content and advertising. Again, here Facebook is making big moves with its LiveRails ad platform and recent patent filings around targeting native advertising based on social graph data, demographics, and advertiser bidding. Already, the cards you see on Facebook from brand pages you follow are being served to you in this way — brands are creating content for posts on Facebook to reach you, and they’re paying to get that content into your News Feed. As Facebook moves towards becoming an advertising network, you’ll likely start to see content from brands on other sites and apps which are being served by Facebook, through similar targeting mechanisms, and most likely delivered on a UI similar to a card.

Today we live in a world where developers build websites and apps, and try their best to link them together through links and non-standard APIs and widgets. I think we’re on a path towards a common set of best practices for connecting our apps, and cards will be a major component of this. Someday, we’ll look back on the venerable URL as a quaint and primitive tool on which we used to rely so heavily, a relic of how the internet used to be.

To learn more about Card UI, I highly recommend reading Khoi Vinh’s blog post on the topic, as well as viewing Chris Tse’s presentation on card UI patterns.