Natural Selection on the web

As one measure of how quickly things move in the world of IT, consider this.  On Monday, I put up a post on the effects of hyperlinks on the brain, suggesting that we here at the Core were going to carry out an experiment in which we would not include hyperlinks in the body of blog posts.  Later in the day, Nick Carr wrote about our experiment ‘de-linkification’, and his post evoked a fistful of blog posts along with comments, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes excoriating.  And now, at the end of the week, the folks over at Arc90, have modified their Readability bookmarklet to allow links to appear, magically, at the bottom of the page as a series of footnotes.  So here we are, five days later, and you can modify your web-surfing experience to conform to an experimental idea that was suggested on Monday.

The pace of such changes is what is both exciting and worrying about IT.  I very much appreciate the Arc90 team offering this solution, and they have wisely made it optional.  As with many downloadable enhancements to one’s environment on the web, this will either survive or not, depending upon user appetite (my guess is that a few enthusiasts will love it; most people will ignore it). In this way, the modern web is very much like evolution, with natural selection holding sway.

But in evolution, it is generally held that traits that increase fecundity – survival and reproductive success – are those that will persist.  On the web, what are the selection pressures?  At least in this instance, it is user experience.  This gets to the heart of the issue – just because your experience is more enjoyable hardly means that it is the best route to pursue.  One need only think about recreational drugs to understand the analogy.  The meme that Nick began with his Is Google Making Us Stupid article and continues in his new book The Shallows leads, inevitably to this insight: that as we (and the web) mature, we should also begin to make some intelligent choices about how we consume the bounty of information that the internet makes available to us.  Just because we can do it, or even just because we like to do it, hardly insures that it is worth doing.

Link to Arc90’s Readability Project and their blog post on the matter.

Hat tip to Nick Carr for alerting me to Readability’s update

Image credit

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One thought on “Natural Selection on the web

  1. There’s no object in the world that enjoys reproductive or survival success. All life-forms die, and no life-form benefits from reproduction.

    It isn’t even clear what “ought” to be succesful about survival or reproduction. We could call stasis succesful, at least for inorganic forms.

    If nothing necessarilly counts as success then anything that turns up on the internet that “we like” is the best formulation of success. The link to reproduction or survival doesn’t make it.

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