Google announced at Le Web that they are working on providing search results without users needing to search. Path has limited your social graph to 50 people. Facebook is working hard on its groups, lists and messaging features. Google has tried to buy Groupon and Yelp. Amazon invested $175 million in LivingSocial. Twitter recently launched People Like You. Companies like My6Sense, Curated.by and Storify are popping up everywhere. Jason Kottke and Frank Gruber have two massively trafficked web sites, where they primarily link people to other content. What do they all have in common with one another? They all are an attempt to bring context to an ever-more crowded, noisy and cluttered world.
Context Restores Value to Connections
As the Web gets more connected and crowded, the concept of connections have diminished in inherent value, quickly become commodities. Not sure you agree? Here’s a quick test. Go to LinkedIn, find a co-worker, and ask them about one of their random LinkedIn connections. Chances are they can’t tell you where that person works or remember how they met them. Same thing on Facebook. In the race to connect many users have destroyed the value of their connections by treating them all the same (a limitation of the networks when we first joined.) And when we can’t easily distinguish one connection from another we run into all sorts of issues, from diminished connection with those we really want to stay connected with (I can’t tell you how many of my brother’s status updates I miss, replaced with a steady diet of random weak tie updates) to privacy issues (why can’t I treat my coworkers differently than my former fraternity brothers?)
Context helps to restore the value of these connections by parsing the important ones out of network. All connections are not the same, and should never be treated as such. By helping users provide context to their connections networks like Facebook are hoping to restore the utility of smaller, stronger connections that have been diminished by unwieldy, weak-tie networks that pervade social networking sites.
Facebook has been hard at work with groups. Which allows users to create smaller, intimate groups based on particular connection attributes (family, work, interests,) aka context, that creates more value and brings more utility to the network. I can now connect with and share things with my family members, like photos of my son, easily and privately within the group structure. Something I couldn’t do before very easily. By allowing me to add context to my network I’m able to get more out of it on Facebook.
Path takes a different approach on a similar dynamic. By limiting your connections to 50, they’re ensuring that your network consists of strong connections only. Strong connections create greater intimacy, privacy and add an immediate layer of context that governs how the service is used. My Path is two people right now. Me and my girlfriend. And that’s perfect for me. Because our Path is our photo diary. I don’t need to share it with the world. Path’s forced context creates a quiet, intimate space, much like the Facebook groups does. Path adds another layer of context via its primary functionality. Being almost completely app-based, Path combines the context of location and mobility with privacy and photos. Those layers of context create value for the user. Which leads us to location as an important context.
Context Drives Local Discovery and Commerce
The rush to local buying sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, BuyWithMe and others heralds the arrival of the local context layer being successfully applied to the Web. Yelp was the early pioneer, building social elements onto the local context layer on the Web. Google, Amazon and countless other Web companies are dying to crack the local commerce nut. And now, by applying the local layer to the social web it seems like we’ve reached a tipping point of moving local commerce online. Google gets the importance of connecting social context to local context. That’s why they were happy to shell out $6 billion for Groupon. Amazon gets it too, which is why they invested $175 million in a company with only ~10% of all group buying web traffic.
The local and social context layers drive commerce because it finally connects where we live with what we do and who we know on the Web. And the results are staggering and this connectivity is only beginning. And it’s not just group buying, it’s what every location based service, like Foursquare and Gowalla are trying to solve in their own way too.
These context layers added to online commerce drive confidence and intimacy. It makes the universe of possibilities smaller, more relevant and easier to act on. The context is the key to local web commerce.
Context Drives Content Discovery
Information overload is old news. I’m not even going to rehash the problem; but suffice to say words like “curation” don’t get worn out in information-poor environments. We are swimming in a sea of content. The majority of content, even more so than connections, has become commoditized to a point of uselessness. The advent of publishing technologies has helped content explode, but the tools to deal with this over-abundance are now just starting to get traction. Whether it’s My6Sense which learns what is interesting to you based on your past consumption, or a tool like Storify which lets human editors pull out and arrange Tweets into coherent conversations and storylines, they are trying to serve a massive need for context applied to our content.
Twitter is also trying to up the value of your Tweet stream by pointing to people who are like you, that may up the signal in a stream that is hard to cobble together one connection at a time. I can tell you from experience that it’s hard to craft an inbound Tweet stream of value at any scale. This is a big problem that Twitter needs to solve to help grow the service and make it relevant for less sophisticated users who don’t have the expertise, time or inclination to curate a group of people they follow that gives them the best experience they can get on the network. Twitter is trying to bring context to who you follow and what your Tweet stream looks like in response.
It’s not just machines and services either that are applying context to the content white noise. The ability to curate content, to create and apply an interesting and consistent context filter, is becoming more valuable than the content creation itself. People like Jason Kottke, the folks at Brain Picker and Boing Boing (among others,) are known, and valued, more for their ability to filter, surface and bring context to the endless firehose of content than of their ability to create it. They are the new editors of the Web. While mainstream print and network news have lost relevance these new editors are picking up the reigns of their offline counterparts, and providing much needed guidance to an audience that struggles just to keep up with the torrent of content, good, bad, farmed and malicious.
In a world where we find our own news, we are now in desperate search for our own editors. The software, companies and people who can create context for us that was lost when we ditched network TV for the blogosphere and statusphere are the ones that are creating new value for us on the Web. We’ll see more software like My6Sense, more context-driven M&A like Google and Amazon, and more Jason Kottke’s and Frank Gruber’s as we look for better ways to apply important context to the content that continues to come, like a never-ending avalanche down the hill. It will be these people, software and companies that will thrive and that will win in the next wave of the Web. Because more than great content we need great editors. Content’s days as King are numbered. Context is the new heir apparent, and the overthrow couldn’t happen soon enough.