Tubes
When the late Senator Ted Stevens (R., AK) said that the Internet is a series of tubes, those of us in the internet intelligensia gave a self-satisfying chortle at his naïveté. Now that we are in the age of mobile, it turns out he was more right than we were.

Senator Stevens saw it as tubes, but the early days of the Internet might more accurately be thought of in the same manner as the early days of the universe, with all manner of matter floating around, not yet having coalesced into definable entities. As such it used to look pretty much like this:
Stack Unorganized
To bring something comprehensible to the screen, a disorganized mess such as that needed to be pared back and organized into a technology stack that serves the client’s needs. A really well-organized web project (if I do say so myself) might then look like this:
Tech Stack Organized

This example shows an involved but not ridiculously complex web site technology stack. We can see the relationships between the applications, the flow of data, and the variety of platforms needed to accomplish specific goals.

From firsthand experience I can tell you that presenting this diagram to a potential client is a home run. To the potential client’s marketing team this diagram makes the tech consultant (me) look organized, experienced, and conversant in all the stuff that is apparently needed to bring the interactive world to the potential client’s feet. This diagram also makes the potential client’s IT leadership feel pretty good because it explains either how their work will integrate with my work, or how their work needs not touch my work. This diagram plays the Jedi mind trick of making both the marketer and the technologist comfortable by communicating the right combination of clarity and complexity to justify the budget.

Transforming that earlier mess into this nicely organized stack is all well and good. But what about the impact of mobile computing today? How have things changed and what does that mean for the blizzard of technologies? An initial reaction might be that the cloud of tech acronyms above would probably grow exponentially with the introduction of all these new touchscreen toys. In fact, the bigger change has not resulted from a proliferation of platforms, but with something much simpler: How people use these new devices. Consider these changes:

  • Today we use the web on the move.
  • Today our screens have many different dimensions and orientations.
  • Today we use our phones as cameras and share them by email, SMS or posting them online immediately.
  • Today a statistically very significant percentage of the world’s population – over 1 billion, or better than 12% – regularly use Facebook. And the larger social media usage numbers are equally staggering.
  • Today many social media platforms share a common log-in function to make it one-click to jump between them.

Social Media means many things to many people, but the one consistency has been that social media platforms have vastly simplified the act of sharing. Uploading and sharing videos, identifying friends in photos (and having them know about it), having multiple threaded comments in response to a single post, checking into specific locations – all of these have standalone applications with usage well into the millions. With all of these social media resources right on everyone’s screentops, why would a company want to invest to build something that mimics behaviors and features that people are already experiencing and using elsewhere? Why would a company think that their users would post their impressions and opinions on social media AND the brand’s own site? Do today’s companies really need to make a deep technology investment to be online in a way that their customers care about?

Or should a company simply have this for its web technology stack:
Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter

 

And You May Ask Yourself…How Did I Get Here?

For the uninitiated, the image above would mathematically be expressed as:

User Engagement = ((User Generated ContentTumblr) + (SharingFacebook) + (Customer ServiceTwitter))

Such a decentralized system is immediately problematic to the leadership of both marketing and IT because it relies on disinterested third parties for the delivery of a brand’s experience. But it is becoming less-so:

  • American Airlines and almost every other major corporation deliver some of their leading-edge customer service through their Twitter accounts. Do they pay Twitter for this conduit to the consumer?
  • Almost every major brand has some sort of Facebook presence. Even though Facebook has a suite of paid services that allow brands to integrate themselves into their target’s timelines, does Facebook even pretend to exist primarily as a service for brands?
  • The leaders of marketing and IT will maintain that moving away from an owned platform to a non-owned platform is very risky. Legal would probably agree. However, companies that are so bold as to do so find themselves in some rather impressive company, among many other of the world’s leading brands.

All of this ladders up to an approach that has been covered endlessly in today’s business writings: Becoming a social business. But what are the challenges for the technology-industrial complex in becoming a Social Business?

At no time more than now, the Internet is truly a network of conduits more than a jumble of technology platforms. In the earlier days of the Internet – before users had started settling into predictable usage habits in numbers that approached any sort of critical mass – technology was deployed to try to make companies and brands as available as possible. However, those technologies were organized and deployed to have the effect of a silo, or even as a fortress, to maintain company data security and integrity.

Becoming a social business challenges this approach on several different levels:

  • User authentication today is more about identification and less about access restriction.
  • Data needs to be organized into smaller chunks to be more quickly deployable and to deliver a greater ability to be mashed-up with other data to deliver new user experiences. Example: tell me where the restaurant is, show me on the map, give me walking directions, give me their phone number, tell me what other people think of this restaurant, and tell me if they have any special offers on; that is up to 5 different data providers, with only 1 of them being the restaurant itself.
  • Content used to be words and pictures. Now it’s video, sound, pictures, words, multi-threaded exchanges, metadata (like tagging for instance), and more. Keep in mind that only some or (more likely) none of the above are resident inside the brand’s own data storage facility.
  • There is no meaningful moderation or expiration date to content beyond what the web writ large applies to itself: The brand can filter out items it doesn’t want to show but those items remain elsewhere, unfiltered and searchable, for an undetermined amount of time.

To a technologist this is a problem: Software is meant to operate along a fixed set of rules and within a well-defined user context. To respond properly to this disruption the technologist needs to embrace the thrill of a new challenge: Architecting data flow to ensure that the user’s experience is as seamless and fluid as life itself. This means:

  • Mastering lightweight data structures becomes a must.
  • Maintaining the separation of interests between the presentation, the business, and the data layers in a multiplatform environment. This is the key to being nimble.
  • Grasping a new notion of what user authentication means in a non-gated environment: If Twitter says you’re ok, what extra level of access should I give you?
  • Developing a new strategy for running complex transactional promotions on external platforms when those platforms regularly change their rules relating to interacting with their users.

For web developers it means thinking less like Dungeons & Dragons, and more like Ultimate Frisbee.

How a company manages this transformation on a day-to-day basis – including some thinking on the team needed to get it done – is coming in a new posting in the very near future.