A while ago, I ran across a video that really changed the way that I think about the web. It was a presentation on Vimeo, of a talk that Ethan Marcotte gave during the 2012 Build Conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, titled “The Map Is Not The Territory”.
Like many things that Ethan has written and presented, this one was very well organized, informative, and thought provoking. He combined history with map making, with evolution, and the web, to make a profound statement that really gave me pause.
At approximately 19 minutes into the video, Ethan puts up a simple statement saying “THE WEB IS”, and then quickly goes through a number of things that complete that sentence.
- THE WEB IS mobile
- THE WEB IS http
- THE WEB IS documents
- THE WEB IS css
- THE WEB IS design
- THE WEB IS content strategy
- THE WEB IS social
- THE WEB IS ...
Well, you get the idea. This statement was only up on the screen for a couple of minutes during his talk, but it made me ask:
What is the web?
Over the next several days, I kept coming back to this question. Yes, the web is all of the things that Ethan listed, and much, much more. But is that all that it is? The answer is a resounding No. Those are just some of the things that the web is made with and of, they are not the thing itself. As Ethan says in his talk, they are the map, not the territory. (For more information on the Map-Territory relationship, you can read about Korzybski’s Treatise)
What if the web is something different for everyone? That started to make some sense, because everyone has different interests and needs, and they go to the web for different reasons. So then:
What is the web for me?
The web is my life. As a developer, I spend 95% of my working day interacting with some aspect of the web, whether that is writing code, troubleshooting an issue, researching a technique or process, or communicating with others, it is all done with and on the web. It is the doorway into the world through which I go to earn my living.
I then started looking around, and talking to other people. For my wife, the web is a place where she goes for research about the latest graphics project that she’s working on; it is shopping for clothes and making travel arrangements. It is a place to keep in contact with friends and family that are not close by.
I found that for some people, the web is a mystery that they have no interest in. It simply doesn't fit into their lives.
So what is the web?
As I continued to ask this question, I realized that it’s not just that the web is different for everyone, but that it changes for everyone all the time, depending on their current needs and interests. During the work day, the web might be a research and development tool. At night, it’s entertainment. When I don’t know something, it’s my teacher; and when I need something, it’s my store. It has become such a constant and pervasive part of our lives, that we don’t even think about using it anymore.
So, if the web is so many things, to so many people, how then, can we be successful with it? The key, really, is not to try to be everything for everyone. The web as a whole, is all of the things that have been mentioned, and while the web is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, it is those parts that make it what it is. The web is made up of millions of individual web sites, with billions of web pages, each one catering to a different group of people.
As a developer, I have seen how having an in-depth discovery process, uncovering information about the people who will be using the site, benefits everyone involved. Knowing that information in the beginning of a project enables the designers and developers to focus on what is important, on what is relevant, instead of on what is pretty. As the designers and developers of the web, understanding the fact that the web is many thing to many people helps us to build a better experience. A better web.
THE WEB IS
When people come to your site, they are more than just traffic, more than just numbers, or conversions, or dollars. They are individuals with a unique view of the world. Individuals with their own needs, their own priorities, their own desires, and they came to your site in search for something. In some cases what your site provides might be the map. For others, it is the territory.
But if your piece of the web can provide them with what they need, when they are ready for it, then you are on the road to success. You are contributing to the greater whole.