How Internet Content Distribution & Discovery Are Changing

Every few years, the Internet — and, by extension, the web — gets bigger and better. As publishing tools get better, we share more content online. As we publish more content, more services emerge to help us find and consume that content. In the early days of the commercial web, it was magazine-like entities such as Hot Wired. Then came search-engine directories and portals such as Lycos and Yahoo.
Towards the end of the last century, digital content started to grow exponentially, and with that, arose the need for a super-search engine like Google. Larry Page and Sergey Brin helped changed user behavior by making it easy to seek, search and consume any content. They spent billions on their infrastructure and made search better, faster and easier — so easy that, like a drug, we got hooked on Google’s search. (Related: Google at 10: Larry, Sergey & me.)

And now we are seeing yet another subtle change in people’s behavior and how content is discovered online. It is happening because of three major reasons, as I’ve detailed in previous posts:

  1. The web is transitioning from mere interactivity to a more dynamic, real-time web where read-write functions are heading towards balanced synchronicity. The real-time web, as I have argued in the past, is the next logical step in the Internet’s evolution. (read)
  2. The complete disaggregation of the web in parallel with the slow decline of the destination web. (read)
  3. More and more people are publishing more and more “social objects” and sharing them online. That data deluge is creating a new kind of search opportunity. (read)

When I first met Dave Winer, he explained to me the concept of “river of news” — where stories would flow as a river and you would dip in and drink what you could. It made absolute sense — after all, as bandwidth (and connectivity) grew, we would be using the web more, including sharing more and more objects. A few years later, the guys at 30 Boxes showed off a time line that essentially aggregated the life of my entire “social network.” As they say, the future always takes a little longer to arrive. In 2009, it has. These trends are showing up as Facebook’s status feed or Twitter streams. John Borthwick of Betaworks defines the stream as:

…a real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of, and whether we participate in them or simply observe, we are a part of this flow. Overload isn’t a problem anymore since we have no choice but to acknowledge that we can’t wade through all this information.

Today we are sharing links, text messages and photos in these streams. Videos or video life streams come later. (About two years ago, I wrote a column for Business 2.0, “Reach out and Twitter someone“, pointing out that we will all be streaming life moments as more and more bandwidth is available both at home and on the go.) These streams are more relevant mostly because the context comes from our social graph.

I find that when folks share stories, links, photos and videos on Facebook, a majority of them are useful. The idea of social shame acts as a a way to share better to overcome the problem of plenty that comes with the rapid growth of the Internet. Sharing better means a higher likelihood that people will actually visit the links being shared on their social networks.

A few months ago, Liz Gannes, writing for NewTeeVee, pointed out that Facebook and Twitter are becoming major sources of traffic for bloggers, such as Perez Hilton, and online video sites, and are growing really fast. This means that content can “go viral” more quickly than ever before, as we saw recently with the tremendous trajectory of views for unlikely international hero Susan Boyle.

We have also seen Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed become referrers of traffic to our network of blogs. Mark Cuban (of the Dallas Mavericks) and Borthwick (of Betaworks) have noticed similar trends. “For the first time ever, more people are finding my blog from Twitter and Facebook referrals than via Google. The total number of people coming to my blog is increasing. The percentage of people who find it via Google is declining. Significantly,” writes Cuban.

Like Borthwick and Cuban, I believe that we are seeing a disruption of behavior in how people use the web. For now, it is still an early adopter phenomenon, but with 200 million Facebook subscribers and Twitter’s rocket-like growth, it is only a matter of time before these two sources become major web content discovery engines. How these changes will impact Google’s business remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure — many Web content discovery engines that exist as destinations (Digg, for example) are going to face challenging times.