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Planes of Silence and Interruption Across The Network

A brief note on two planes of the Network landscape that have recently caught my attention. They are the terrains of interruption and silence. Each of these areas is going through a transition. Each signals changes that are starting to bubble up in other areas of the Network.

The terrain of silence, for the purposes of this discussion, will be defined as unvisited web page locations. Web servers are not purposefully asked to send these pages to waiting browsers, their activity is indistinguishable from background noise. An unvisited page published by an individual is a perfectly acceptable event; here I’m more specially addressing the corporate CMS (content management system) driven behemoth web sites. The enterprise CMS brings the cost of brochure-ware publication down to almost zero. Marketing departments, assembled and calcified in the Web 1.0 era, churn out copy that is sent out to occupy the hard-won turf of their little section of the company’s web site. The products battle for shelf space in a self-defined, self-limited topography of web 1.0 information architecture— home page, tabs, pages, categories, sub-catagories. The navigation scheme based on the hyperlink and the outline implies an almost infinite number of potential pages that can occupy the space below the tip of the iceberg.

Many are learning that if you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. More often than not this multitude of pages is met with silence. The analytics show that there just aren’t any clicks there. Generally companies retool to get clicks to those pages, because clearly “they” should be coming, there’s simply some adjustment that needs to be made. “User-centeredness” is bolted on so that users will understand that the pages they don’t want to look at are “needs based.” All kinds of lipstick is applied, but in the end, it might just be that the user just isn’t that in to you. The conversation is one-sided in an empty room, the analytics show it. It turns out that automated publishing of linked hypertext documents isn’t the same thing as interactive marketing. The growing silence will eventually change the character of the interaction. The old 1% response rate for junk mail is transferred to the web when direct marketing model is employed without alteration on the Network. The web is just a way of lowering production costs, it’s a notch above the economics of spam. Think of it as the negative space of the page view model.

At the other end of this candle that burns at both ends, is the terrain of the interruption. For the purposes of this discussion, the this terrain will be defined as the the set of Network-attached devices you’ve given permission to ping you when something important occurs. The classic examples are the doorbell and the telephone. Each was originally anchored to a specific location and would signal you with a bell when they required your attention. The telephone went mobile, and then was subsumed into the iPhone as a function of a personal computing device. The bell that signals a telephone call is still there, so is the alert that tells you a text message has arrived. But now there are a whole series of applications that will send you an interruption signal when something has occurred. A stock hits a certain price, a baseball team scores a run, you’re near a store with a sale on an item on your wishlist, or someone just commented on an item in your Facebook newsfeed.

The terrain of interruption used to be limited to a few applications that signaled a request for a real-time communication from another person. The interruption is still event-driven and unfolds in real time, but it’s no longer only an individual signaling for your attention. Now it might just be a state of the world that you’d like to keep tabs on. If any of these things happen, feel free to interrupt me. If I really don’t want to be interrupted, I’ll turn off that channel— so ping me, I’ll pick it up in real time, or as soon as I’m able. What was a sparse and barren landscape is quickly filling with apps that want the privilege of interruption. Multi-tasking becomes simply waiting for the next interruption: interruption interrupting the last interruption— or as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem Burnt Norton, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The economics and equilibrium of the interruption have yet to find their balance. These interruptions threaten to become an always-on real-time backchannel to daily life. Constant interruption is no interruption at all.

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