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People, Places, and Things

To understand something, you need to be able to make a picture of it… even if that picture is relatively vague, fuzzy, or even artificial. When I say "house," you'll form a picture of some kind. How about "North America"? Did you picture a map? What about "joy"? You'll also form a picture of some kind even though it's really an abstract idea.  I'll even go further and say that you have to be able to take that picture and place it in a larger picture.

What is your picture of the Web? Is it a little cloud icon? Is it the Web Browser? Is it a particular Web Site? Is it a mesh of computers extending out to infinity? Or, is it simply impossible to make a decent picture… and if it's impossible to make that picture, is it more difficult to understand and move around in it.

In our everyday experiences, we can imagine the beginning and end of things, the bounds, and thus form a picture of it and visualize ourselves and other things somewhere within that context. This also allows us to, among other things, place ourselves relative to other things. For instance, my town is next to this town… I'm far away from that country. This knowledge of relative position of things helps me determine where I might go and what my possibilities and limitations might be. 

In the real world, places can aggregate certain types of people, sub-cultures, good and services and therefore take on certain unique characteristics. They are physically bounded and are separable from the things around it. When I'm hungry, I can say, "there are great restaurants in this city, but not that city."

However, the Web doesn't work this way. There is no physical structure or bounds. Sites, pages, resources of all kinds are not necessarily aggregated into physical locations (even though they reside on physical computers).

So, when you're on a cnn.com, where are you? Sites are little spatial nuggets out in this infinite region where there is really no notion of direction or relative proximity. How close is cnn.com to espn.com? That's a bit of a meaningless question, really. Real-world distance doesn’t apply. I can go anywhere from anywhere without delay.  Okay… time/distance doesn't matter, but are there other relative qualities that may be helpful?

There are, of course, links. Things are related via these links. We can use these threads to weave things together conceptually. This is great for search engine algorithms, but I'm not sure it's useful to the rest of us.

There have been continual attempts to contextualize, categorize, and organize the Web and its content. Early attempts like GeoCities tried to partition sites into cities and neighborhoods. This still seems like it would be useful, but the virtualized locations would have to be universally accepted and couldn't be a part of any kind of closed space. Further, I don't think you can attempt to mimic real-world locations, but instead would have to let the digital cities grow and evolve organically. They would need to self form.

It seems that this idea has been abandoned in favor of a kind of classification structure. We don't browse locations so much as we search globally or within some  arbitrary classification like "Images" or "News." It seems we don’t' care about the "where" so much as we care about the "type" of thing.

Search engines and others are in this never-ending battle to figure out and then categorize the information and other stuff out there on the Web. It is not about "place" so much as it is about relevance. We're no longer looking for a distinct thing in a distinct area.

I still wonder if it might be useful to artificially bound the information so we can all form nice little pictures?