Sumeet Jain
28 Feb 2009

Mommy, where do websites come from?

Note: Sorry if this old article shows up in your newsreader. I needed to change a few filenames, and my site’s RSS generator might pick up the changes and republish the articles.

The Internet is a medium for human interaction.

Even when we use an intelligent and automated web application, we interact with the humans who created it. Their choices, tastes, words, designs, failures, and successes are all contained within the code that serves us. You cannot escape the humanity of the Internet.

"Skype Video Call"

The human connection is more obvious in some online experiences than others. Video-chatting on Skype with my grandmother across the world is direct interaction, and the technology is only secondarily apparent. Even if you take away the video, her voice is still human enough that I don’t feel the filter of technology.

Other experiences begin the transition away from direct, human interaction. Instant Messaging like with AIM or MSN Messenger is still direct communication, but the human aspect of it is lessened by the introduction of a person’s “cyber-ego” (or “online identity”). Not being able to see or hear the person with whom we’re speaking necessitates the creation of an image in our minds of who (what?) the person is. We can’t help but project our own assumptions and judgements onto them. Still, at least we’re conscious of the fact that we are communicating with a human - though our image of them is admittedly inaccurate.

At the other end of the spectrum are online experiences where the human connection has been completely erased. That is, when we use applications in this realm, we forgot that humans are involved at all. The big example? Google, of course.

Let’s say I forgot the keyboard shortcut to open the last-closed tab in Firefox. As I Google for this keyboard shortcut, I’m aware of my expectations: The query will be processed by Google’s engine. I will be shown many results. Clicking one of them will likely provide me the answer I desire.

But as I read lifehacker’s post on the keyboard shortcut, at no point am I considering that a human being wrote this tip. It’s information, and it’s there, and that’s that.

For our younger generation, the removal of this human connection is even more apparent. They have no reason to equate information with humans, because they were never alive during a time when humans gave each other information directly. Their entire view of acquiring information has its premise in the Internet - and more than likely in applications like Google.

What I’m curious about is how long it will take for applications that are not like Google to become equally human-less. Twitter seems poised to be the first. This is a site with an overwhelmingly expansive data structure that I actually feel fear when I think about it. It’s huge. Perhaps its most powerful feature is its search, which looks through all Tweets by all users.

Try searching for a good budgeting application for the Mac. Or what’s new with the San Francisco Giants? Your results will vary, but you’ll find a wealth of information about whatever you search for.

Another way to get information from Twitter is to just ask. Say you hear some folks talking about the Rolling Stones touring in the USA and get excited. Quick, Tweet a question to the world at large: “Are the Rolling Stones really coming to the States?” You might get a couple people giving quick replies within the hour. Specific information - on demand.

"Twitter Results"

So far, Twitter’s users are very aware of the fact that all of this information comes from people. There hasn’t been enough time for a Twitterer’s real identity to become dissociated from their online persona. Once that happens, it doesn’t take long for the online persona to fade into obscurity and become one with the Internet.

But Twitter grows - as do many of the Internet’s offerings. And as a new generation grows up with these resources more available than any other resource - man-made or natural - I wonder how long the Internet has before it’s wholly a non-human entity.

A pivotal point in human development is the asking of that existential question: “Where do babies come from?” Among other things, it marks a child’s awareness of the world as something which is created. How soon will our informational development be marked by our awareness of the Internet as something which is created? When will children ask, “Mommy, where do websites come from?”