Encounter Technology

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
23 January, 2018
Editorial: 169
Fecha de publicación original: 25 mayo, 1999

Nothing escapes or gets lost if you build a strong cage

The volume of services on the Internet is constantly growing due to the increase in the Internet population as well as the “translation effect”. The widespread use of English in the Net has triggered the enormous increase of digital content over the last year and, at the same time, generated a logical centrifugal production towards the languages of origin, particularly Japanese, French, German and Spanish. The battle between portals has also stimulated this process. Although, for the moment, they are competing on the level of redundant services (free e-mail, online organisers and notes, customised news, etc.), little by little the need will arise for them to mark out their own territory on the basis of highly differentiated content, which will increase the diversity on offer. All this –and much more– highlights the need for developing “encounter technologies”, conceptual systems that lead internauts –individuals, organisations, businesses or administrations– to the areas or sites where they can find the content they need (or discover that they need it when they “get” there). Technologies that, in addition, are not only used for organising a one-way flow of information but are able, at the same time, to generate information based on the activity of users – organised supply and demand meeting points.

Of course, what I have in mind is technology similar to that of en.medi@, developed by Enredando.com. We will analyse the way it has worked over its first three months of existence in a forthcoming editorial. In any case, this is a part of the digital communication ground which remains practically untapped, which is why trust in the “natural attractors” of the Net continues to rule (for the moment anyway). And the truth is that they are becoming more and more ungovernable and inefficient. The Internet is beginning to cry out loud for an end to the “poster” era, where individuals display their prowess through beautiful web pages and hope that their magnetism will attract visitors (and for many this is their only aim when, in fact, it should be just the beginning of a lasting friendship). What the Net needs in this new phase, where the fundamental appearance of electronic commerce –despite its still hesitant steps– is starting to inject a certain degree of complexity into digital information systems, is the development of a layer of “encounter technology”, in which the communication flow is organised in such a way that internauts find the interactive environments where they can consume and generate the content they were looking for or that they did not even know they needed. Something like the universally standardised technology of TV, the cinema or the printed press, but adapted to interactive environments.

The key to the success of the cinema and TV lies in their highly-refined encounter technology. Wherever we go on the planet, if we want to see a film we know that all we have to do is look at what’s on and choose a movie and a cinema. Once at the door of the movie house (which are almost identical everywhere), the technology is the same all over the world: first you go to the box-office to buy a ticket and then to the door of the cinema (bars in the foyer are ornamental technology: some have them, some don’t). Once inside, there are a lot of seats organised in rows facing the screen. Behind us, in a small room, is the projector and the rolls of film. At the appointed time we can almost hear the magic words: lights, camera, action! The lights are dimmed and there it is, just what we wanted : a screen lit up by a film.

What happens with the TV is not very different either, where the hassle of film listings has been replaced by remote control buttons; or with newspapers, whose encounter technology is more dispersed but just as efficient, through news agent’s, street vendors or deliveries to the door of our homes. The Internet, despite advances thanks to the evolution of its directories, is still a long way away from the other media in its design and up to date “encounter technology”. For the moment, on the Net, this technology is based on fairly rough and ready methods such as “spamming”, word of mouth, and, for those who can afford it, via the media in specialised magazines and newspapers with the waste that this implies since a lot of the people who read this information about new services on the Net are not even internauts. Putting web page addresses all over the place, from advertising hoardings to the bodywork of buses and cars, T-shirts, key rings or corporative banners, all form part of this rather crude and simplistic method of advertising. Fortunately, as part of this campaign, nobody has as yet gone so far as to publish instructions for mailing lists: “Write to xxx@xxx.xx, put subscribe in the body of the message, don’t include signature and don’t touch the “subject”. You will be hearing from us”.

At the present time, with the large audiovisual industries beginning their assault on the Net and the arrival of multi-media content open to user interaction, this absence of “encounter technology” is even more astounding. While corporations know how to get users to consume their products in the real world (cinema, video), in the virtual world they don’t know how to “lasso” them. Yahoo, the most visited site on the Internet, only just handles 1% of all the traffic on the Net, which might seem a lot but if it were a TV channel it wouldn’t last more than a few minutes in the competitive audiovisual world. How should we respond to this situation? By spending millions of dollars on portals or virtual communities in the hope of gathering together a significant audience which not only visits the site but also buys there? A risky investment as it presupposes the existence of a mass of internauts with stable behaviour patterns.

The irony of the situation is that, perhaps, it is not even enough to have content and compete with the rest on that basis. The front runners will be those capable of organising their information so it is easily found by those who are going to use it and enrich it. Ironical, but not unusual, because the basic material of the Internet is still communication, something which many Net protagonists tend to forget. And when the organisation of communication generates information flows that facilitate interactive encounters amongst users, this communication, and the technology that makes it possible, becomes a strategic asset, as the marketplaces and “plazas” of prosperous cities did in the past. They were places where supply and demand came together for economic transactions, but also for leisure, passing the time, getting information, gossiping, enjoying oneself, and performing or educating oneself with a wide variety of cultural activities. The Internet needs to promote research, innovation and creativity for designing “encounter technologies” that will lead to genuine electronic marketplaces.

Translation: Bridget King