Einstein’s Bicycle

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
6 February, 2018
Editorial: 174
Fecha de publicación original: 29 junio, 1999

The grass looks greener on the other side of the fence

The growing and –and inevitable– commercialisation of the Internet is giving rise to a rash of theories, and even philosophies, to explain what we are doing there and how we can take financial advantage of it. Books, specialist magazines, symposia, conferences, thematic web pages and, of course, a host of illustrious gurus, generally from the US and labelled with prestigious names such as MIT, the Harvard School, or acronyms from the latest company to storm Wall Street, are all fabricating loads of new terms and slogans which become orthodox doctrine in a flash, only to last as long as a packet of sweets at a children’s congress. This is especially true in the field of advertising and electronic commerce, where the volume of investment is accompanied by a youthful urgency to make them profitable in the shortest possible time. “Digital demography” is fuelling all this wild activity. It’s all about finding out who is going where, what they do and what to do with this information.

Basically, it is a kind of search for the Holy Grail: the magic formula capable of measuring audience ratings and applying these results in every possible context. New thinkers on the Internet often envy television and newspapers with their recognised rating systems on which advertising agencies rely (sometimes one is not sure why). But the worst thing about it is not the envy, but the attempt to apply the same criteria to measuring “digital” audiences as “analogue” ones. The result is an extraordinary amount of data but very little information and clarity as to what is really going on. Which does not prevent decisions being taken on the basis of these obscure figures and the uncertain tendencies they point to. In their wake, a whirlwind of fashions are created.

In just four years we have run from “hits” to page views, from “click-throughs” to unique visitors. The nature and content of these webs, the characteristics of the visitors (new or veteran internauts, their sub-cultural groups, objectives, etc.) have not seemed to matter at all, nor any other features for that matter that might have enabled us to sketch out some kind of demographic policy. So, firstly, we have had no clear idea as to who visitors are and, consequently, it has not been clear how we should design communication flows to reach audiences with whom to undertake a significant exchange of information. None of the criteria mentioned –so in vogue in the digital service industry– give us the magic figures that explain the three basic pillars on which any audience policy on the Internet should be constructed: time spent on a site, the activity of the user and the use value of the information found. By use value I mean the growth rate of information in the system– Internet– originated by the information obtained and redistributed by users.

This means that we should be capable of tracing that information and giving it an economic value as it appears, in whatever form, in other parts of the Net, stimulates the activity of other users or generates new communication flows. Thus, no measuring system –or attempt to make Internet activities profitable– can rely solely on the number of visits to a web page. It would need to, amongst other things, develop other systems related to the dissemination of information especially by e-mail. Given the present state of affairs, with the ideas and methods at our disposal and the dispersion that some fashions create, it is a bit like asking Einstein to measure the speed of light by chasing it on a bicycle. One could try, but the results would be prone to erroneous interpretation to say the least.

In the meantime, we are moving along ill-lit paths. In fact, they are really rough and ready. So many visits to a page mean so many opportunities to sell, display and move a product via a “banner”, etc. But nobody even knows if there is any correlation between page views and the money generated by them. In fact, if that correlation does actually exist then it probably owes a lot to chance. When measuring traffic in the Net and how it relates to economic profitability, the people who try to pick someone up on chat pages must be valued differently from discreet visitors who open their browsers with a wallet full of dollars ready to be invested on the stock market. However, it has taken a long time for this information to “filter down” and be translated into “banners” that try to capture particular audiences. If one clicks on them one would imagine that one had got past the front door. From then on it, should all be plain sailing. Quite the opposite. Einstein just keeps on pedalling his bicycle. People might be attracted by the “banner”, but not to buy what they find on the other side. What appeared to be a solid demographic criteria turns out to be just another conundrum, in fact.

This does not stop us being bombarded with information about “the most visited web page”, “the web with the most “click-throughs”, “the web with the most page views” …..as though these criteria are useful to everyone in the same way and indicate the same things to those who want to plan their investment on the Net. It is curious that the Internet allows for the maximum degree of personalisation but that this is converted astonishingly quickly into just so many pages visited, so many “banners” and things like that. When we talk about advertising, traffic, the use of information, we very quickly lose sight of the fact that we are very different users. The newly-arrived have different needs from the veterans. And that is just for a start. In the Net we unfold a multiplicity of personal facets. There is no way yet to integrate them into a couple of simple figures that explain everything. Quite the contrary. The combined and differentiated action of internauts, their diversity multiplied by a constantly growing population, mean that miraculously nothing is what it seems and, above all that nothing remains what it seemed.

There is no way of knowing who is “the best” of the week, because people do not move around the web as they do around a predetermined number of TV programmes or the pages of the only newspaper they usually buy. Things happen differently on the Internet. In the first place, there are millions of webs (and not just a “Top Ten”), a proactive attitude is needed to find them and, in general, we create information feedbacks with our activity depending on what we find in them, behaviour which is quite the opposite of television viewers. For that reason, a news service in a virtual bookshop or viceversa are not the same, nor does the key to the success of either depend on accepted criteria which do not take into account time spent, user activity and the value assigned to information found according to the use made of it. In addition to the difficulties that measuring these three aspects gives rise to, we are now off on another search for another fashion: loyalty. Until we find out, that is, once and for all, that the Internet is a whore that has fun with everyone who says they love her while sleeping with everyone. In the meantime, Einstein keeps pedalling.

Translation: Bridget King.