The Web is not a Communications Medium

My friend Martin Geddes has an intriguing post up at CircleID titled “Is the Web a “Communications Medium?”. The answer is “no, it’s not:”

I’ve been having a short Twitter exchange with Paul Downey (@psd), someone who I hold in high intellectual and personal regard. I’ve made an assertion that has Paul snorting his coffee back up through his nose and into his keyboard: that the Web is not a communications medium. Justifying this claim can’t be done in 140 characters.

Now, there is a sleight of hand I’m pulling off here. You can build communications media on the Web, but my claim is that the Web itself is not one, and that has subtle but significant consequences.

(Much of this post is an edited version of a section from my free white paper on the future of communications in the cloud, Connect, Interact, Transact.)

To me, a “communications medium” is one which allows bi-directional messaging. It is something that doesn’t require both parties to be in the same “place” (physical or virtual) at the same time.

What the Web lacks is an ability to “introduce” you to the website, and to provide a means for you to share data about yourself including how the other side can choose to initiate contact back to you.

One of the basic distinctions in networking separates communication – a personal, two-way activity – from content publishing, an essentially impersonal one-way activity. The Web is something of an aberration among networks as it’s more a one-way system than a two-way system. We can summarize the history of the Internet something like this:

1. ARPANET was a telegram; its primary use was e-mail.
2. Early Internet was a floppy disk; its primary use was FTP.
3. Web is a book; its primary use is reading.
4. Streaming Internet is a TV set; its primary use is Netflix, etc.

If the future Internet is a video conferencing, gaming, or augmented reality system, we’ll finally enter an era of networking that’s not simply a rehash of some older technology at a lower price point. Until then, it’s useful to be mindful of the limitations of the current reigning paradigm.

  • Chris Parente

    Thanks for leading me to Martin’s opinion piece. I think he’s way off, and here’s the comment I posted on CircleID:

    I think what you’ve done here is take a human nature issue, and tried to transform it into a technology problem.

    The Web/Internet IS a communications medium. In fact, unlike radio or TV it’s the first network to have two way communication built in.

    Now, do 98% or more of people use it that way? No, because the vast majority lurk, not participate. This is human nature, nothing to do with the Internet.

    Also, you seem to suggest that the validity of a communications network depends on how intrusive it can be in our daily lives:

    “Web sites are like one-way mirrors. Whilst a web site allows the customer to reach out to the enterprise, the converse is not equally true. Only tools like SMS and telephony can ‘buzz, flash and ring’ to interrupt the user to participate in a time-sensitive business process.”

    If that’s the criterion, where does that lead us? Will the Internet not be a communications medium until most of us have cranial implants? Paging George Orwell…

    The Web exploded because it offered utility to huge numbers of people. Users have (largely) driven which applications get developed and succeed, and which have failed. If as you say —

    “All the technical components for doing this exist, but in the actual Web we use they are not deployed to any meaningful extent.”

    then maybe that’s because businesses have not made the case that such components deliver value to consumers.

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