After the page

In my Guardian column this week (nonregistration version here), I argue that we need to explode the home page — and our notions of the page and the site, for that matter. This is about the new architecture of content and media and the internet. The column is a shorter version of the post below:

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After the page

It’s time to ask what comes next in the design of online news sites: What is the next home page? What is the next page, for that matter? Do we even need either anymore?

Every online site I know puts undue effort into its home page, even though in some news sites as few as 20 percent of users ever end up there. The rest, the majority, come directly to pages deeper into these sites instead through search, links, and bookmarks. Or sometimes they don’t go to the sites at all but read their content via RSS feeds or email or hear or watch it in podcasts.

And now that ajax, Flash, et al can make pages endlessly dynamic, infinitely deep, and utterly individualized, it is time to rethink the page itself. After all, Nielsen just decreed that it will stop measuring page views — because, with ajax, the page is being made into a meaningless unit of media. Instead, Nielsen will measure audience and engagement.

But engagement with what? Where? I’d argue that in Google’s distributed model — which makes this very page part of the Google empire, thanks to its ads here — even the site is an outmoded concept that is being kept alive artificially by the measurements that advertisers understand. That already-antiquated standard of measurement — who’s the host with the most? — forces sites to stay big — too big — under one brand and address, when I’d argue that they’d be better off breaking themselves up into a score of more viral — that is, more directly linkable — sites, brands, and addresses. That is, do you really want to have to dig into to find Page Six? Do you want to have to mine to find Howard Kurtz’s bloggy articles?

Finally, note that many news sites have now come to a common visual voice and grammar: Compare the recently redesigned Guardian, Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Telegraph,; they are all graphic cousins with equal proportions of white space and blue type. They all look good and work well because they learned from each other. They have settled on a common if unspoken standard of the home page. Have we now arrived at the end of this process? Will the home page — like the newspaper page — now look essentially the same for decades to come? I hope not.

It’s time to break out of the old page and its now-common interpretations. But to what? I see a few possible models for a new architecture of the home page, the page, the site — hell, of the web itself. These models are not mutually exclusive, nor are they comprehensive.

THE VIEWER: So imagine if a site had only one page. You come to that and you can get anything you want there without ever clicking off to another page. Yes, this marks the welcome death of the click and its delays and uncertainties. Now you can get many things on this infinite page. It is a gigantic menu of media. Over here, I’ll put a video of live sports. Then I’ll replace it with a video of a news story. Up with it comes a list of related links and background. Over there, I’ll put a feed of headlines from elsewhere. Down there I’ll have discussion about what’s going on in what I’ve just pulled together. In another dimension of media, I have a separate soundtrack — perhaps my friends talking about the game, maybe music, maybe news. When something new happens in any of these, it will pop to the front and alert me; when it goes stale, it fades into the background. It can all be about one thing — every angle on a story — or it can be about many things and can morph from one view to the other. (And of course, somewhere in all this, there’ll be some new forms of advertising to support it but one hopes that is relevant to me more than my content.)

But, of course, why should all this come from just one source? Why couldn’t I get these things from any number of sources? It’s my screen, right? Who’s in charge of this page: me or the media outlet? That’s going to be a crucial question. But even if it’s the media outlet that gives me this — as it can today, on a page — it would be wise to give me the opportunity to include anything I want from anywhere in it. And that means that every media outlet must make itself ready to be included in anyone else’s page. Widgets gone wild.

FEEDS: Almost all media is a feed. Certainly news is. So’s broadcast. So’s adverting (a feed of commercials, a feed of billboards, a feed of classifieds). When I was at my last real job, as I’ve mentioned here before, I wanted to rearchitect my news sites around feeds: feeds of our headlines; outside headlines; blog headlines; prospective searches (that is, tell me when something new on a topic comes across the sources I specify); classified ads (but just the ones I want); photos; podcasts; vodcasts… and on and on. None of this is static, of course; it’s all fresh and dynamic.

Once you have everything made feed-ready, this allows a site to very easily construct new pages with any of these feeds on them. It means, for example, that a local news site can automatically construct a town page with feeds of inside and outside news and ads and more.

But then it’s a very small step to making this personalized: a page with my feeds on it. And then it’s just another small step to taking this out of the page and into a new application: a new browser — AKA, an RSS reader. This can feed any device, live or on demand. All it needs is for media to convert everything they do into feeds. (There are lots of sites I never read anymore because they don’t have feeds.) Those feeds can be raw — Dave Winer’s river of news — or they can bring smarts with them: prioritization, context, comment, ratings, rankings, freshness, expiration….

NETWORKS: But let’s not assume that media organizations own all content in the future. They don’t already. They will, I’ve been arguing until everyone around me is blue in the face, that wise news organizations must learn to work collaboratively. So coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, for example, will not be just what has been brought onto a news site but also a collection of links to witness-reporters’ own sites with their own live news, soon even live video.

But this, too, can be a two-way pipe. The witness-reporter’s content can be made into widgets and feeds and included on a news site (with branding, attribution, vetting, caveats). Or the media organization’s content can be included on the witness-reporter’s site. Or everything can be inside our user-controlled space: a new browser or aggregator or reader.

Consider, too, that advertising and sponsorship will be networked as well: Google is not but every other dot com with Google on it. The web and its support becomes massively distributed.

SHOWS: Maybe I want you to make a show for me; maybe I want a more passive experience: Feed me. But I don’t want to be fed what everyone else is fed. See Dave Winer’s request to get news without the story he has tired of. See also Facebook’s news feeds, which Mark Zuckerberg says are algorithmic, giving you news the system thinks you want based on your network, your stated preferences, your use, its smarts.

Now mash all this together: In one corner of my screen, I have a show; Along the side, I have lots of feeds. On the other side, I have dynamic, constantly updated widgets. This stuff comes from anywhere and everywhere — from my own network of news sites, from friends, from friends of friends. It can be fed through any device. In fact, it may not even have a screen; what if it knows I’m in my car and can only talk to me? when the system knows my only tether to the net is a phone, it sends me just what it knows I need to know and when I get back home it catches me up on what I missed. While at home, it projects what I need to know on screens or walls, and This isn’t just beyond the home page, it’s beyond the page, the browser, the screen, the computer.

And if I haven’t blown your brain enough — I keep trying — consider that I may be adding myself into this, bookmarking, tagging, annotating, saving. And all that adds more information to the information; my friends can get feeds of what is fed to me and all our feeds together become a kind of passive Digg. My act of consumption become acts of creation. The antisocial act of watching becomes a social act of sharing.

OK, let’s get real. But this is real — today. Any news site can do any of this today. It can make feeds and widgets and shows on what we still know as pages and it can operate inside larger distributed networks. Importantly, none of this requires what we have always thought reinvention required in the past: new systems, new backends, new infrastructure, millions of dollars and lots of consultants and deadlines that never come. You can do most any of this today with a little bit of coding — html, ajax, Flash (but not too much now), RSS — on what we still archaically call web pages. Now.

Many years ago, in about 1995, when I saw the odious Pointcast — the screensaver that ate office networks and gave you news when you least needed it, when you want to the bathroom — I left the demonstration telling my boss to go nowhere near investing in or using it. I went back to my office and worked with my team to deliver every bit of Pointcast’s value using nothing more than a refreshing web page that once a minute checked on the latest from the AP wire and included it. Newsflash, we called it, was dynamic, extremely popular, and elegantly simple. Now we can do much more.

So someone needs to break out of the sameness that has become news home pages, pages, sites, and services and start the next wave of reinvention.

Who will it be?

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YET MORE: See also Seth Godin lighting dynamite under the home page:

Do you really need a home page? Does the web respect it?

Human beings don’t have home pages. People make judgments about you in a thousand different ways. By what they hear from others, by the way they experience you, and on and on. Companies may have a website, but they don’t have a home page in terms of the way people experience them.

The problem with home page thinking is that it’s a crutch. There’s nothing wrong with an index, nothing wrong with a page for newbies, nothing wrong with a place that makes a first impression when you get the chance to control that encounter. But it’s not your ‘home’. It’s not what the surfer/user wants, and when it doesn’t match, they flee.

You don’t need one home page. You need a hundred or a thousand. And they’re all just as important.

: Here’s an E&P feature about three recent newspaper redesigns.