November 28, 2009

Keep A Close Eye on Chris Messina for the Web's Future

There are a few people in the Web whose work I can't help but watch with significant interest, as I know they are among the more visible people, working in teams with lesser-known colleagues, focusing their effort on moving the Web forward. From DeWitt Clinton, Brett Slatkin, Brad Fitzpatrick, Chris Saad, Dave Winer and David Recordon, to people like Jason Shellen, Chris Wetherell, Kevin Marks, Leah Culver, Paul Buchheit, Bret Taylor and Chris Messina, to name two handfuls, I can believe that these folks are working on those projects that are shaping the way we communicate and take in information. Messina, in particular, has penned a few blog posts over the last month that have had us thinking quite a bit - and it is safe to say he is on a roll.

Chris, in November alone, has proposed a new microsyntax for Twitter, forecast the death of the URL, and talked about how "designing for the gut" takes advantage of how the new social Web pushes people to overcome phobias and connect with people.

A well known advocate for open source, and one of the voices behind OAuth, which we discussed on Thursday, Messina has a history of thinking beyond where we are today and proposing concrete ideas that can be acted upon immediately. Those hashtags you see everywhere on Twitter these days, in practically every tech event and many trending topics? Chris proposed the idea in August of 2007. So it makes sense that he might have given a ton of thought to more uses for microsyntax, as he describes in his proposals for Twitter, as he suggests new items, including "/by", "/via" and "/cc". These suggestions are very clear and concise, the work of someone who has done his homework.

Chris' thoughts on the reduced focus on the URL too are salient, as we become more used to navigating in our browsers with pre-determined buttons and workflows. For me, URLs are often simply one-time visits before they are thrown into my RSS reader for safe-keeping, or they become bookmarks for later clicking. But the act of typing in a URL character by character seems antiquated. As he says, that's a gut feeling, and not one backed by much science on my part.

As I see it, the social Web changes the entire process of content discovery. Instead of portals, we are relying on mortals. Our trusted friends and experts bring us the best content from around the Web to us directly, via Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and even that old tool... e-mail. We are trusting human filters to select the best from our RSS repositories and hand it off downstream. We pick a handful of trusted favorites, and make them the equivalent of our Yahoo!, or even Google.

Chris' post on the death of URLs paints a not so pretty picture of how, if left uncontrolled, a few powerful companies could help funnel the majority of users to predetermined sites, hand selected by them - much like the fears we once had about dominant portals. This could be done as we graduate from the traditional browser and link model to something else, where Web-connected applications pass us the requested data. He says, "We all know that the internet has won as the transport medium for all data — but the universal interface for interacting with the web? — well, that battle is just now getting underway."

One thing about the Web is that it is ever evolving. The places we choose to communicate are changing. The information we think provides value is changing. Our requirements for how quickly we need the data are changing. Chris and the many folks I mentioned in the first paragraph are among the first line of defense we have, trying to set standards and promote change for a world that feels right from both the gut and from the mind. You can find Chris' writing over at or on Twitter at @chrismessina. While I assume many of you read him religiously, it's time the rest of you did as well.