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The Library of Discount Stores

2 December 2015
Colin Devroe

When I first connected to the Internet in the mid-90s it was thought of as the beginning of the largest, global library to ever exist. A new, digital Alexandria that was safe from nuclear winter. Every piece of information stood on its own like a book on a shelf waiting to be found, read, linked to. These days, this place that I’ve called my second home feels far more like a discount food store with everything strewn all over.

At that time web pages were still numbered in the thousands. In fact, on the day I connected for the first time in my bedroom, there were less than 3,000 actual web sites according to Yahoo! [1].

In a library it is simple to reference a specific page of information because every page existed in a single location; Row 1, shelf 3, book 5, page 97, paragraph 3. On the web that same thing would look like http://row/shelf/book/page/

As “pages of content” expanded to “pieces of content” the same rules were applied to those. Specific images or pieces of audio should exist in a single location all on their own.

For those of us that were trying to build the web, we tried to stay true to this thought that the entire web, and every piece of content on it, should be curated like a library. Each piece of content should have a single place and not be thrown about or referenced under multiple URIs. Though a book can be written about several different topics you’ll only find it in one area of the library. So too with a photo, or audio, or video, or article; we thought. We built our sites, applications, and APIs with this in mind. One canonical URI for every thing on the web.

I loved this web.

The Grocery Store Era

Then shopping happened. The web ended up becoming the most useful tool for purchasing things since currency. It gives us access to products we may never have had access to, at prices we may never have seen otherwise, and delivery can be instantaneous for digital goods and within hours or days for physical goods. Over 20 years later the web still amazes me in this area.

However, the way things were beginning to be classified and stored changed during this era. And, to me at least, it resembled how grocery stores are laid out. Graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey’s chocolate bars should never be put on the same shelf if you were following some sort of logical taxonomy. But there they are right next to each other on a shelf next to the soda or beer. Why? Because some products in grocery stores are laid out based on intent rather than any taxonomy. They know you’ll buy those three things to make Smores so they put them next to each other.

Imagine if a Library put a reference book about World War II on the same shelf as Saving Private Ryan simply because they thought you may like both books. The entire system would shatter.

There is also a lot of “gaming” in the way grocery stores are laid out. Need milk? Everyone buys milk. So they put that in the back of the store so that everyone who comes in for milk will need to pass through many isles of things they may not need. Twice (both in and out). Some stores are nice enough to put a few of these much needed items; bread, milk, butter, etc. at the front of the grocery store but buy-in-large they want you to walk through their isles.

How did this manifest itself on the web during this era? You’ve never seen the same page twice on Amazon. Every visit to the home page, every visit to a product page, and every single time you’ve checked out with your purchases, Amazon has built that page, on-the-fly, to show you products that their robots think you want.

It is true that every product has a URL on Amazon but you’d never be able to guess it. And you likely would never try to find anything on there by drilling down through categories, sub-categories, lists of manufacturers and then filtering by prize or size. Thank heavens for search. Search made any, all, or no taxonomies possible.

The grocery store era of the web wasn’t necessarily a total mess. Everything seemed fairly tidy it is just that you couldn’t predict where things were going to be and when you saw them in one spot, they’d be in a different spot on your next visit based on statistics. It was a constantly evolving floor plan.

The Discount Store Era

Discount food stores — you know, the ones with food that is just about to expire or that fell off the back of a truck or caught fire once or whatever — are a menagerie laid out like a maze. Snowblowers next to already-sprouting tulip bulbs. Nearly expired yogurt next to chocolate bars with foreign names on them. Kids shoes in every size except the ones you need next to tiki torches and small bamboo cutting boards.

These places make no sense. But they work because people are willing to take the chance on finding something and buying it for less money than someone else likely did. Rarely do people enter these stores with a list of things they want to buy since they have no idea if those products will be there. They usually walk out of them with things they never would have purchased otherwise but seemed like a good deal at the time.

This is how the web feels to me now. Not the entire web. But certainly large portions of it and certainly the portions of the web that the people-who-think-the-Internet-is-Facebook visit.

You’ve likely experienced this scenario; see headline in your Facebook timeline that looks interesting, click on it, read that article (smattered with terrible ads) only to read to the end and see “related stories” involving celebrity gossip, cleavage shots, or tips and tricks to lose weight. I’m often baffled as to how any algorithm could have possibly chosen what ends up on the page. One moment you’re reading about a company being acquired the next your shown a monkey smelling his own finger.

You’ll see tactics like this on reputable news sites. When you reach the end of the article and there is a video that is completely unrelated to the article you’re reading or a “text link” in the middle of it linking to an unrelated article. It is positioned in a such a way that appears to be related or even part of the article but it isn’t. It just so happens that the article you’re reading has some “juice” and the publishers want to get you to watch something else there too. It is a wicked game of attention grabbing at all costs.

Content has no origin. No shelf. No home. It is splayed out on the canvas in an attempt to get you to see it… no matter what. And it is all about to expire. Much of it doesn’t last nor is relevant even a day later than it was published. Much of it is geared far more towards entertainment or sucking up your time than being of any real value.

Every site is different but as a whole they make up the general feeling of the Internet. Like a neighborhood of homes with well manicured lawns feels different than a neighborhood with old, dilapidated, unkempt homes with decommissioned vehicles in their front yards.

I suppose I just wish I was seeing more libraries built than discount stores.

[1] “Total number of Websites”.

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