Web Intention Deficit Disorder

(Note: Thanks to Gigaom for posting up an excerpted version of this post. I also wanted to share the longer version below for those interested.)



The shape of Web 3.0 has finally emerged in the realization of the Stream, something I and others have written about extensively.

Twitter and Facebook, among others, through their self-consumption and propagation, feed that spring and disseminate it in an immediate and constant flow of information.

This concept is not new to the Web, however. The Web has always been a stream; in fact, it has always existed as a stream of streams, even at its earliest stages of evolution as a set of individual sites developing new content (and new content sources) over time.

What has changed is the pace of content production and distribution, which has made the underlying web-stream more evident, and the need for a Scheduled Web more intense.

Diagnosis: WIDD

The seemingly inevitable result of the surfacing of the Stream is that users are thrust into the paralysis of what I’m calling Web Intention Deficit Disorder (WIDD).

Web Intention Deficit Disorder is pressing in its implications.

WIDD is the problem of getting people to not only focus their attention on a given issue, but focus their intention to act upon it as well.

Twitter’s crowning early moment last summer as the amplification platform of the Iranian protests to the rest of the world is an ideal example. Only in brief, isolated instances did “the whole world is watching” crescendo translate to any actionable difference to the reality of the situation.

This is, of course, an extreme example, but the idea that simply changing your Facebook or Twitter icon to a different color in solidarity is of little use or encouragement if no real world action results. And while the protests held our Twitter-trending attention for a comparatively impressive length of several weeks, it faded just as quickly when the next buzz topic emerged, be it Michael Jackson or the new Twilight film.

Distraction will be somewhat assuaged over the next year simply out of the necessity of preventing user fatigue and atrophy, bolstered by the development of more precise filtering and recommendation services. (I have seen several impressive efforts in stealth that will be revealed soon).

Establishing (indeed, reestablishing) a true Web of Intent, however, will ultimately require a different form of interacting with the Stream, one that more concretely insists on active participation and creative work, rather than mere passive consumption.

This exact concept is the nexus of a new endeavor called Trailmeme, from Xerox. Approaches such as the one they are taking are precisely what I find so vital to the useful development of the next generation of Web technologies.

We need intent-centric products and services that contextualize the Stream, and propel publishing in a more meaningful and actionable form.

Solving Intention Deficit: Trailmeme

Trailmeme is still in very early development and the UI is rough, but I have been following its progress with interest since I first spoke to the project manager, Venkatesh Rao, over two years ago.

Trailmeme, which is currently in a private beta, is a conceptual necessity to the organization and creation of Web content in the endless flux of the Stream. While its UI features are still in development, after a recent exploration of their stage, I feel it is evolving a new and valuable breed of content curation and creation.

I’m not allowed to say too much about them as they are still very much under wraps, but I do want to give a few high-level observations that get at why the project is so interesting.

Trailmeme is, on the surface, an organizational tool, yet that is only a small aspect of its actual value or purpose. And more importantly, it has certain characteristics that many startups will reckon with as WIDD becomes more and more acute.

Like any number of other content organization or bookmarking sites, Trailmeme allows users to save and tag articles.

But in their case, users do not simply consume and store articles, but “blaze” their own trails by creating a meaningful, intent-driven, interlinked network between pieces of Web content. The result are annotations and contextualizations that are at once personally relevant and, when shared and made public, a new way of reengaging the material for readers and followers of the trail itself.

The distinction between Trailmeme and regular bookmarking platforms is a deference to creative engagement rather than passive consumption.

Rather than tracking and cataloguing articles and sites, Trailmeme insists users place that content in a relevant pattern, however defined by the user, with other content. Users link digital objects (articles, websites, datasets, etc) in multiple relational paths, and provide their own commentary to the interlinked associations.

For example, the Trail on the “Scamville” expose launched last year by TechCrunch begins with a single node, or trail marker, and branches out in any number of creator or collaboratively defined paths to follow the story across various websites and articles.

For readers, these artifacts can be followed as an in-frame series of articles, or from a visual map view that displays all of the possible paths.

The visualization element is one that will become increasingly indispensable to the Web as streams are organized (InfoHarmoni is an especially interesting visualization play, fresh out of Y-Combinator).

The ability to link to multiple markers from a single node is also an intrinsic property that hearkens back to the earliest, but still unrealized, vision for what the World Wide Web should be.

The passive consumption of articles and Web content must become an active process of contextualizing and contributing to that content in new ways.

Here’s a video on the Trailmeme concept:


We have a long way to go before the Web of Intent takes hold, but the conceptual interests that underlie Trailmeme and others are fundamental to addressing some of our most pressing problems.

Hopefully many more systems like this will force an intentional engagement, one where mere passivity and reception proves not only unrewarding, but antithetical to the system, much in the same way that video games have elevated the interactivity of film and television.

The first step to ensuring intention is to promote systems that are inherently based on engagement and action, not mere consumption (e.g. more clients upon clients).

If we are to evolve a more manageable and effective Web, we must remember that capturing attention is not the only ambition we must pursue; we must focus and foster intention as well.

See Also: Good post by Venkatesh Rao, leader of the Trailmeme project, on Web Attention Deficit Disorder

12 thoughts on “Web Intention Deficit Disorder

  1. Gregorylent

    there is a deep mystic component to what you have written … intention is a powerful concept in that realm … a truth, energy follows intention … we are in early times, as you know, with this tech stuff …

    though, to a mystic, all this is just what a developed awareness can already do … outpictured

  2. gregorylent

    there is a deep mystic component to what you have written … intention is a powerful concept in that realm … a truth, energy follows intention … we are in early times, as you know, with this tech stuff …

    though, to a mystic, all this is just what a developed awareness can already do … outpictured

  3. Venkat

    Thanks Nova!

    I think you've framed some of the key issues being tackled/remaining to be tackled very accurately. WIDD is more than a clever turn of phrase. It is deeply descriptive. I've seen people browse like they are truly lost, with no idea why they are reading what they're reading.

    Old media, whatever its failings and reasons for being in a tailspin right now, did get this thing right. I sometimes think that one use case for Trailmeme would be as a replacement for the Sunday Paper. When I still got those, I used to read them with real intention. There was a point, and even when the point was merely to see “what's new” I knew how much attention I was investing towards learning about what was new. I invested two hours and got value out.

    Now, it's easy to wander about reading stuff on Twitter, in a dissolute way, and at the end of the week, you've vaguely “explored” a lot of things, gotten nothing done, and basically achieved an informational random walk.


  4. Sales Rescue Team

    I agree with Venkat here, Nova. This is more than a clever way to turn a phrase. It reminds me of another famous author's comments about the greatest resource we have is our attention. An attention economy is what he called it — that's where we're heading and I think your WIDD is parallel or in the same vein. I'm eager to hear about these new tools that are in stealth mode. Please tweet them out when done… I promise to give them my attention and intention.

    1. Venkat

      That's a clever handle, 'sales rescue team' … that's clear intention right there in a name 🙂

      As it happens, one of our inspirations for trailmeme was the mad scramble involved in marshalling documents together for a big sales proposal…when researching a big enterprise customer, sales teams often have to conduct lots of conversations, collect and collate material, pull together a collaborative narrative and condense into a deal-winning deck, often within 24 sleepless hours.


  5. jazzmann91

    Very few people will use this. It all goes wrong with the words “insists users do…”. Insist your users at your peril. Web 3.0 isn't about intention or action, it's about emotion. The web has “Like” as it's primary emotion, at the moment. I think this will improve, but this product won't be the one to do it.

    Change consumption to action and you'll have a revolution of the web, not an evolution. And both are way harder said than done.

    1. Venkat

      Interesting take, and oddly enough I think you are partly right. We DON'T expect everyone to do this.

      That's why we've positioned this as a publishing technology and are focusing on strengthening publishing elements. Unlike bookmarking or 'sharing' which everyone can and does do, publishing is an intentional and creative act. Blogs and wikis are also technologies that 'insist' that users do certain creative things, which is why not everyone blogs and not everyone contributes to wikis. It is not a sense of duress that Nova is getting at with 'insist' but a sense of the creative demands of any medium. Watercolors insist on being treated in a certain way.

      By contrast everyone browses and bookmarks at some basic level. There is little creativity and little value added (in fact, arguably, some value subtracted). Social bookmarking services mine value by amassing large quantities and concentrating/distilling in automated ways.

      So we see our challenge as finding the subset of people for whom trailblazing is the creative art they want. The class exists, and I know this because I've met several people who are in it (I personally love trailblazing, but there are members of my team who don't enjoy blazing, but do like walking others' trails). And of course, there is evidence from related domains like mind-mapping and flow-charting that shows that people do enjoy and find value in thinking with such tools.

      Now the only challenge left for us is to figure out how big this class of people is and whether we can build a business based on their needs. And whether what they produce is of high value to other, more passive consumers.


  6. BG Denis

    This is paradise to “un esprit de synthèse” Synthesis mind! Finally a better way to arrange and view the topics. This will in my mind map the web 3.0.

  7. Barry O'Gorman

    Interesting – tend to use a combination of zotero for storing/ xref relevant web content, freemind for diagrams of relationships…looks like something on the lines of trailmeme could replace both and contribute on the social dimension.

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