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Carl Sagan Would Love the Web, But Would He Hate the Way We Explore It?

Carl Sagan photo courtesy of The Star Garden blog

When Vinod Khosla writes for TechCrunch that one of the unhyped areas of web development investment is a series of applications that fit into the vertical of “Emotion,” he’s halfway there. He writes:

The power and leverage of this class of applications are making designers the essential ingredient of a startup’s founding team and “experience” design (instead of just user interface design) a key skill and product offering. I might lump new classes of games into this category though I consider games an established category and I am trying to focus on new, surprising areas in this post. The line is hazy though. One could reasonably put gamification of everything from health to education to training to shopping as a new emotional tool for applications.

The problem with social web platforms being designed today is that each one is designed to be its own web. Developers seem to think that exploration and experience are only about their web, not the web outside of the one they want users to know.

If Carl Sagan could see them now, you could almost imagine him offering a lesson on how there are actually many more planets, many more stars, in fact, millions and millions of billions of billions of galaxies in the known universe.

When Sagan was becoming popular, he was becoming popular during a time in American pop culture that felt and created a tense friction between the sacred religious practices of Western theology and a kind of stilted science that was afraid to disrupt those practices. As a revolutionary astronomer and thinker, Sagan insisted that planets, solar systems, whole galaxies were meant to be visited, not just observed in the night sky, only to be measured, analyzed from afar and set against what we already knew.

It oversimplifies it, but Sagan hyped system exploration, because he felt that global science establishment was content to sit on its laurels and assume:

When NASA was refused funding for a manned mission to Mars due to inflation caused by the Vietnam War, Sagan suggested launching robotic probes to land on the surface instead and made it his crusade to win over the public. Carson helped endorse the view and the success of this project led to an article in TV Guide, a less prestigious magazine than science journalists were used to, but with an audience of ten million readers it provided an opportunity to reach the masses. Shortly after this, Sagan was profiled by Rolling Stone magazine, he was now not just a scientist but a celebrity in his own right.

Sagan’s influence not only meant that the Viking missions went ahead, but they contained a camera capable of spotting moving objects. Sagan made what were seen as outrageous claims about the possibility of ‘polar bear sized’ animals on the surface. This kind of talk ignited the imagination of the public but scientists worried he was setting them up for a fall and feared the backlash. The first view of the pink Martian sky came in 1976 after a Titan Centaur rocket hurled Viking 1 into space. There was no sign of life.

Signs of Life Outside of Our Small Dot of Earth?

Facebook, that lovely blue planet populated by over 800 million people, is perhaps the most well-known, and the most visited instigator of this old fashioned view of the web, and an examination of what it does deserves an analogy. Facebook has not really changed any of the rule book of the web. Essentially, it took that old Web 2.0 idea, that the web was readable, writeable and shareable and built an alternative web within the web, where we do all of the same things we used to do, but only in Facebook.

If the idea that you should have your life showcased and charted, lived and experienced only within one microdot on the world wide universe does not bore you, then I think that you must already be dead.

The web is space, and the venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and web engineers building today’s social platforms are building in it, re-constructing one universe with themselves in the center, hiring designers and user experience specialists to ensure that the web looks just like you want it to look, only different than that other web you visit that has a different name, a different app, and that demands different login credentials.

The design of the web in these social platforms ignores the consumer. There is that saying, if you are using a free service, then you are the product. It’s very true. One may use it how one might best use it, and to the best of his ability, but you are still, in the end, being used.

This is why, when tech bloggers write about tech, they should be switing their focus, like we are at Current Editorials, to talk not about the wonderful products beign made for the web, or being funded by the VCs, but about the consumers of the social platforms, what they feel, experience, and how they use social platforms and other kinds of tech.

Within those worlds are infinite possibilities. It’s amazing to me that nobody does this. Everyone is so busy maintaining their fan fiction of every social platform planet that they are forgetting that there are consumers on the web. They have feelings. They demand to be heard.

How This Is Shaping Up — Will We Soon Have a Connective Tissue for the Web?

How do we connect all these disparate galaxies in this deep web of space? How do we build the spider webs between them all?

Community management is one node in the answer field.

the Known Universe, "on the scale of worlds, humans are inconsequential"

Lots of tech developers spend a lot of time, and a huge shit tone of money on DESIGN, the holy grail of the web.

If it can be used well, then it is the end-all-be-all platform on the web.

But consumers are trying to connect their emotions, often in separate platforms, in different kinds of content.

Design is something separate from emotions. It’s not that consumers want to use applications they love, or that evoke powerful emotions. They want to use applications that support the fact that they already have emotions. They are not programs to be run within programs. They are humans, trying to get a job done in their lives, each day, every day, one day at a time.

I talked last week with a young community manager at a very popular social web platform. it’s a platform often mentioned in the press, and it’s a platform that has enabled people to make very interesting changes in their lives, living lives of social adventure and creativity.

She told me that the most ironic, and frustrating, thing about her experience managing community within this social platform is that, even though the platform itself does not ascribe to the idea that it should be only a platform on the web, with no other competition and no other connections to other services, in her role as community manager, she is never able to use any other social platforms to communicate to her community. It’s always through email and through the existing platform.

The theory is that people developing such a platform are “geeking out” so much about what they can make that they don’t often think about how they can take what already exists and combine to create a connective tissue for the web.

Facebook is the problem. Facebook created the mark for success. and the trouble with Facebook is that it’s not community. it’s not really a place to share your life. It’s a place to share media, which in the end benefits Facebook, not the consumer. Well, there’s a caveat here. In the end it helps one kind of consumer — a consumer who is also a media creator. Facebook is a new publication distribution channel, not an album for your family history.

Facebook is a small blue box, and the universe is more than that. You are more than that.

With Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” approach you get marketing buzz to convince us that we can discover great things about our friends by sharing the details of our lives online, in Facebook, especially through the spread of media. Facebook is exploiting the fact that, living in a tiny blue dot in the middle of web space, a media world, we often turn to media to express what we wish we could express in real life. Facebook exploits that there is so much media within hand’s reach; that we satiate our subliminal connections to express and signify emotions, to get us to share media, increase time spent, and links clicked in Facebook, to justify the rates they charge for advertising, which goes straight to their bottom line.

What we really need is a way to stay out of all of these platforms, but still visit them. We need a reason to stay within our own spaces in the web. We need our own sites, our own hubs, and then we need a smart connection engine, like Sumazi, to send out calls for help, for friends, for collaboration and for connection. Then we need to do that work outside of the web, create our own lives, create our own media, and then put that on the web, as a kind of testament to what is really out there in our “universe.”

We need those radical thinkers and doers who are able to go out into the world and find out what is really there, so that we are not falling into this trap that the life lived on the web is a life well lived. It is not. Life on the web is really just a series of dots in the night sky, which we observe from our small, dignified life on land.