Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

The World Wide Web is Moving to AOL

An update from the Founder and CEO of World Wide Web, Inc.

October 1, 1998

I know this blog has been quiet lately. It’s been a crazy few months of meetings and negotiation here at WWW HQ, but we’re finally ready to share our big news: World Wide Web is joining the America Online team next month! We couldn’t be more excited.

When we first launched the World WIde Web in 1991, we never expected it to catch on or turn into a business. The last few years have proven us wrong. The New York Times has a website, Vice President Gore mentions us in speeches, and some people buy books through their web browser.

We’ve always admired the guys at America Online, so when they approached us this summer, we jumped at the chance. By combining forces with their amazing team, we can leverage the technology and scale of their platform and focus on what matters. Our small team has been lucky just to keep up with your questions and bug reports.

The World Wide Web has been great, but to be honest, it’s also been a lot harder than it needs to be. I know some of you love creating new web pages and participating in online discussions, but the last thing most people want when they get home is one more thing that makes them work. That’s why television is so much more popular.

We know how frustrating it can be to click a link that turns out to be broken, or visit a page that you thought was about one thing, but turns out to be about something different. Many pages are filled with typos and inaccuracies. We would never put up with that in our newspapers and magazines. Why should we online?

Our team will be working with first-class partners to bring you the content you deserve, from the best magazines in the checkout isle to in-depth reporting from your favorite network news programs. We want your new World Wide Web to be a place you can trust.

Some of you have put many hours into adding pages and sites of your own to the World Wide Web. Your passion and enthusiasm for quirky topics and off-the-wall ideas were great.

Don’t worry, all of that hard work won’t be wasted. The World Wide Web will remain accessible for 30 days, which will give you plenty of time to update your readers and customers. Each of you will also receive a 30-day free trial for AOL. Look for your CD in the mail soon.

Even better, we’ve created an import tool to make it easy to migrate everything you’ve put on the web to American Online! The address will change, of course, but now it will be available to every AOL member. You may find that you don’t need to bother, though. America Online already has groups and pages about almost every topic you can imagine. Take a look around first and you might save yourself a lot of time. There are only so many different ways to say that Citizen Kane was a good movie!

We understand that not all of you will become AOL subscribers and not all web sites will move to the new platform. Just to be safe, be sure to print out all of your favorite pages before the end of the month.

It’s been a wild ride, but we’re just getting started. I look forward to seeing you online, America.

Team WWW

A recent talk by Cory Doctorow reminded me once again how lucky we are that no one owns the Internet. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, Cory, EFF, and so many others for steadfastly defending the World Wide Web against those who would co-opt it in the name of safety, commerce, or anything else. As Dave Winer says, “Ask not what the Internet can do for you, ask what you can do for the Internet.”

Is This Your First Time Here

Readmill released a brand-new iPhone app today and it’s the talk of the Internet (or at least the corner I find myself). Already available for the iPad, many have eagerly awaited an iPhone edition. The app is beautiful and has been widely praised.

The blog post announcing the release is masterful. The writing is succinct and friendly (I like the “Stick it on your homescreen…” line). There are raves from influential people. The images are enticing. The post has a sense of “We built this for you and us”, which is invaluable. The talented people creating Readmill clearly love the app and what it makes possible.

But what does Readmill make possible?

Reading, obviously, but reading what? The post includes a reference to what you might read with it, “the latest page of your book”, but that leaves a few unanswered questions.

Can someone:

  • read Kindle books, iBooks, PDFs, or mobi files?
  • read articles, similar to Instapaper?
  • purchase books?
  • add previously purchased ebooks?

Without browsing the site or visiting the app page, it’s unclear.

Writing for multiple audiences is one of the hardest and most common content challenges. A company is telling an ongoing story to what feels like a consistent audience. If the company is doing interesting things and people are talking about its products, though, new people are regularly stopping by, especially when there is significant news. These visitors are starting with hardly any context, most likely just a link from a friend.

I think about content like hospitality. If you’re having people over to your house, there is a familiarity with those who’ve visited before. “Grab something from the fridge and relax on the porch. We have that drink you liked so much last time.” Much goes unsaid.

You go out of your way for people who are visiting for the first time, though. “Let me show you around. The restroom is down the hall and to your left. Oh, that’s Pixel. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite.”

Try to read your content, especially announcements, from the perspective of someone who hasn’t heard of your company or product (or better, find someone like that to provide feedback before its published). The people who are already part of your story don’t mind a short paragraph that bring visitors up to speed. Go out of your way to make everyone feel at home.

Note: Readmill is awesome. This is simply an illustration of a common content dilemma, one I struggle with often.

How Will This Play Out

I grew up in Michigan where the card game of choice was euchre. My high school friends and I would play whenever we could, especially during lunch.

As we got better at the game, the games got shorter. We learned the patterns and could often see clearly how a hand would play out based on what cards had already been played. Instead of finishing the hand, someone would point out the inevitable outcome and we’d stop where we were, count the points, and start a new hand.

The ability to see how something plays out is enormously valuable. The experience and wisdom that make it possible are rare and often ignored.

With technology, the assumption is that the pace of change renders the past obsolete. “What we’re doing hasn’t been done before. The old rules don’t apply.”

We’ve experienced revolutions, no doubt; unexpected innovations that confound us and change how entire industries work (or create new ones).

These rare revolutions provide the excuse for us to avoid difficult questions about how something is going to play out. “Something” might be a new feature, business model, or strategic decision.

The reality is, we often know exactly how it is going to play out, because hundreds of companies have gone down the same path. The one thing the technology industry doesn’t lack is prior art (and exhaustive discussion) about what has worked and what hasn’t.

The temptation is to care more about momentum than progress. We just want to keep moving rather than think through where a decision will lead. We treat new features like the pull of a slot machine handle, as if the odds aren’t well known.

Make decisions informed by what’s come before. Seek out advice from people who’ve been in similar situations. Pause, look at the cards that have been played, think about the cards that remain, and play out the rest of the hand in your head.

Experiments with predictable and ultimately unsatisfying results aren’t worth the time now or the change in direction later.

Imperfect and Unexpected

Since moving to Austin three years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to see a few terrific concerts. I’ve been thinking about the emotional allure of live performance. What is it that brings us together in one place, despite the cost and oftentimes numerous obstacles, to hear songs we likely own and watch a performance that will be on YouTube a few days later?

The best concerts are not note-for-note reproductions of favorite songs. They are the heart and soul of a performer feeding off of the crowd. When I think back on concerts I’ve experienced (whether in person or not), the moments I remember are the mistakes and surprises: Chris Martin forgetting the next verse at a Coldplay Austin City Limits taping, Gary Clark Jr. breaking a guitar string, Led Zeppelin playing For Your Life live for the first in 2007, Radiohead stopping a song to get someone help, then continuing right where they left off. There was the time when Arcade Fire grabbed a branch from the ACL set and used it to beat a drum, and this great moment from Madison Square Garden.

And you’re going to be like, “Remember when I saw Arcade Fire and they played the first minute of their song and they started over? That was the best moment of my life.”

The energy of the audience and band are completely different after it. Now, they’ve shared something truly unique and memorable.

A live concert is one of the increasingly rare chances to experience those imperfections and unexpected moments.

Sigur Rós is one of my favorite bands. There is one song in particular, Ára Bátur, that gives me chills whenever I listen to it. There is a note that the lead singer, Jónsi, has to strain to reach. He sings most songs falsetto, but in this one, there are moments that lie just beyond his range. You can hear his effort to reach the note, which makes the performance even more emotional.

I was reading about the album that includes Ára Bátur recently and discovered that the song was actually recorded live at Abbey Road Studios and the performance itself was filmed and is available online (the specific moments I’m referring to begin at 5:50). Even without knowing that, and without the sound of crowd, the song had the emotion and energy of a live performance.

Technology encourages us to chase perfection, but often it’s at the expense of unexpected moments and emotional connection. Like Auto-Tune, we try to calibrate our products and experiences to remove any imperfections or surprises. (I’m not talking about banking apps and such. There are plenty of situations where people prefer an experience free of surprises.) We exchange raw honesty and openness for a world where we’re always excited and every feature is awesome.

One of my favorite examples of surprise is Glitch, the online game and community which recently came to an end. The game began with months of beta testing. What made the beta so much fun is that it was done in short bursts. The game would be available for just a day or a weekend at a time and you never knew when the next opportunity to play would be. It became an event you didn’t want to miss.

I want to build things that leave space for the people who use them to take them in new directions. I want there to be small moments that surprise and delight. I want people to experience passion, not perfection.

In the year ahead, I want to reach for notes that are just out of my range.

The Heart of It

When you’re bringing something new to life, do the values you want reflected in the result have to be part of its creation?

If you’re building a travel app, but you’ve never left the country, will that show in the end result? Can you paint a serene scene in the midst of a chaotic life? Will a political campaign dedicated to changing the status quo be successful if it’s run no differently than the campaigns that came before?

I don’t know that there is a simple answer to this question. For individuals and artists particularly, there can be a certain amount of disconnect and the result still be what was intended. A star engineer can help create a groundbreaking new game without being a gamer. An artist can draw a fantastic logo for a product she has never used.

For an organization, though, I think the answer is different. The passions and values that you want expressed in the product (whether a magazine, app, site, game, service or anything else) have to be the same passions and value of the team behind it. When the two are not aligned, the product will fall short of what it was meant to be. A company without a love of games in its DNA is unlikely to create something people will love.

While working on Uncommon in Common with a group of friends for the last five months, this question has often been on my mind. (You can catch up on the story so far if you’re curious.) The dream of Uncommon is a slow web community that celebrates favorite things, curates the best parts of our week, embraces limits and rhythm, and encourages time away from our screens.

That is a fine goal, but I want that now. I want to hurry up. Uncommon is a labor of love for all involved. There aren’t VC’s to please and we don’t have to meet payroll every two weeks. Nevertheless, my instinct is to seek the attention of the right people, promote and over-promise, and work late into the night. I know there is a way that new things for the web are supposed to be built and promoted and expectations for how any new community should work if you want to be successful, from Facebook sign-in and rows of share buttons to ads and username games.

Those expectations often present a dilemma. Can a site determined to support people in finding a healthy balance online be birthed out of imbalance? Can a community embrace patience if we are anything but? There are shortcuts and temptations at every turn.

Thankfully, everyone helping create Uncommon, from the advisors and core team to our amazing founding members, understands what is at the heart of it. They know that we can’t create something uncommon through methods that are anything but. And each time I find myself unclear or make a wrong move, they don’t hesitate to remind me.

What are the values at the core of what you’re building? Let them guide what you do and how you do it. In the end, those values are your product.