Web 2.0 initiatives are growing along the Internet highways like orchids in Hawaii. MySpace.com, the “next-generation portal” built around social networking, provides access to user-generated content for blogs, chat rooms, movies, music, music videos, classified ads, comedy, on-demand TV, and videos, along with access to games, horoscopes, jobs, MySpace instant messaging, and so much more. The phenomenal growth of MySpace (at last count, 140 million members in November 2006) has led to struggles simply to keep its server-farm back-end alive and functioning especially difficult for a system that did not have the engineered basis that Yahoo!, eBay, or Google provides. As the space continues to add users and viewers (not always the same thing), it seems that the issues will grow more numerous as the content grows more diverse. Of course, one can never tell what will show up, including Junkie Jasmine’s attempts to achieve world fame through her belching abilities. In this area, MySpace will compete with Google’s YouTube and almost all other media providers rushing to the widest number of contributionsand to the lowest common denominator of content.
SecondLife.com, a virtual three-dimensional world, revealed at the beginning of February 2007 more than 3 million “residents” and more than $1 million spent per day. It recently announced how open source code for viewers enables even more people to extend the site’s collective functionality in diverse applications. Already, its interactive map features thousands of interesting locations in a complex virtual landscape offering events, things to do, and items to buy. A recent event by IBM in Beijing gathered 7,000 people worldwide to view the company’s global initiatives . IBM CEO Sam Palmisano used Second Life to control his avatar visiting not only Beijing’s Forbidden City built on virtual real estate, but to join in IBM meetings with fellow IBM avatars in Australia, Florida, India, Ireland, and elsewhere. Among the other projects he mentioned was a $10 million endeavor to help build out the 3D Internet that Second Life represents. Also available on Second Life are videos, much like the offerings of Google, YouTube, and MySpace, and photo galleries (based at Flickr.com), providing the typical related images and tags to help viewers navigate through content.
Collections of opinions, topics, videos, photos, and more are growing by leaps and bounds. Have we seen this before? Yes, every decade or so, but now it’s coming faster and faster. One major change is that, finally, virtual spaces seem set for prime-time distribution with real world access some 10 to 20 years after the first excitement of such environments gained a foothold in our reality. Another major change is that powerful, large corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and Google are backing these adventures in social networking and media access. A third change is the growth of user-generated content including applications in open-source environments.
All of these developments lead to a sea change: When everyone jumps into the pool, what happens?
The Countdown to the Big Splash?
Where does this lead us? Some say the advent of Web portals and user contributions leads to new forms of social networking and cohesion, even to new notions of worldwide (nationless, presumably) democracy powered by the Internet 2.0 and later versions [3, 7].
Wherever we turn, it seems that portals and applications of all kinds are moving ever more quickly to larger and larger collections. Maxtor and other vendors already offer multipetabyte hard drives, and soon to arrive peer-to-peer video applications may consume many petabytes of data. As these uses emerge from the rare research laboratory environment to the sunlight of everyday experiences, more than ever we urgently need breakthrough techniques for perceptualizing (visually and sonically) structures and processes. I have mentioned this need in earlier columns. What is striking is how rapidly we are approaching a threshold beyond which we shall need user interfaces with metaphors, mental models, navigation, interaction, and appearance different from anything we currently see or hear.
As often happens, human invention may come to the rescue to get us out of our current challenge and into the next one. The mother of all data loads seems to require new theories and new techniques to find a search-and-retrieval solution that works in many use contexts, across multiple content domains, for multiple applications, and most platforms. Perhaps we have a glimmer of this approach in the developments of (mathematically oriented) Princeton University’s musical composer Dmitri Tymoczko, who has applied equations from string theory (normally used to explain subatomic particles and cosmological phenomena in the search for the Theory of Everything) to explain patterns of all possible musical chords and to visualize them in a graphical form [4, 5]. Perhaps a similar application of seemingly far afield theories can bring insight to our own world of human-computer interaction and communication.
As Tymozcko explains in Lemonick’s article , the musical technique helps scholars, teachers, and composers to see relationships that were not previously apparent and to compare and contrast structures, discovering principles that describe these artifacts.
With sound and especially the human voice  now being added to applications, we may be on the verge of new ways of navigating, communicating, and even thinking, which will let us cope with all the petabytes that are assaulting our computer and communication devices. Let’s hope help arrives soon, before the waves hit us.
2. Kirkpatrick, David. “What’s Next? It’s Not a Game. The 3-D Online Experience Second Life is a Hit with Users. IBM’s Sam Palmisano and other Tech Leaders Think it Could be a Gold Mine.” Fortune, 5 February 2007, 56-58.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.
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