The Web Is Dead? What Does that Mean (to Nonprofits)?

Submitted by Brett on Tue, 08/17/2010 - 3:38pm

Wired has a fascinating series of articles up about the future of the Web. Everybody interested in the actual "technology" part of nonprofit technology -- as differentiated from what technology can help your organization accomplish -- should probably give it a read (and not just because Tim O'Reilly compares Steve Jobs to either Gollum or Frodo; I can't tell which).

For everybody else, here are some highlights:

The web browser may be in decline. The proportion of Internet traffic served through web browsers reached a peak of more than 50% in 2000, but has since declined to less than 25%. This doesn't mean fewer people are visiting websites right now, since overall, Internet traffic has continued to grow explosively -- but if trends continue, it might. This has obvious implications for nonprofits hoping increased website traffic will lead to more donations, volunteers, and engagement.

The browser is not the Internet. In all of the current hype about "apps", it's important to remember that a web browser is itself an app. Back in the day, we called them "applications", but since that inspires less-than-favorable associations with the buggy, bloated, crash-prone computer experience of the past, we've shortened the name to reflect what the iPhone and Android have, quite literally, turned into finger food. People are consuming more content from the Internet, just not necessarily from websites.

Nobody's making money from website content. Michael Wolff notes that in 2001, the top 10 websites accounted for 31% of U.S. pageviews. Today, it's 75%. That's astounding. And yet, outside of Google, nobody's making money, even at those massive economies of scale. Why not? Well, Wolff writes that, "According to a 2009 comScore study, only 16 percent of users ever click on an ad, and 8 percent of users accounted for 85 percent of all clicks." Even worse:

Nearly 60 percent of people find Web sites from search engines... In other words, many of these people ... may have no idea why they are visiting a particular site — or, indeed, what site they are visiting. They are the exact opposite of a loyal audience, the kind that you might expect, over time, to inculcate with your message.

The web, it turns out, may not be a good way to engage people, at least from the perspective of traditional advertising.

So, companies interested in making money off the Internet are turning away from the web and making googley eyes at apps and closed systems (like Facebook). To this, we can only say: Great! More room for us!

As Wired Editor in chief Chris Anderson writes:

... the great virtue of today’s Web is that so much of it is noncommercial. The wide-open Web of peer production, the so-called generative Web where everyone is free to create what they want, continues to thrive, driven by the nonmonetary incentives of expression, attention, reputation, and the like.

He's echoed by Evan Hansen: "The web at its core is not a system for publishing articles and rendering them in a browser. Rather it is a system for making connections — between documents, devices and ultimately people."

And that's where we come in.

Still, since we do need to produce content to engage our supporters, there are a few lessons we can take away from the commercial side of things:

Your website is not a panacea.

Not to belabor the point, but if companies backed by millions of marketing dollars are having trouble making money from their websites, it's unreasonable to think that just having one means you're going to see an uptick in donations. But you know that. It takes a lot of work. You have to tell your stories. You have to build community. And you have to do those things across multiple channels.

Don't complicate things.

At one of the start-ups I worked for in a previous life, our designer came up with an interface for one of our products that looked like a standard computer program. Anybody who had any familiarity using Word -- you know, everybody -- would have understood how to use it. The owner didn't like it, though, and insisted that we go with a graphic interface that looked like a scene from Myst, using the metaphor of an actual office because "everybody was familiar with how to use a desk". Yeah. That company did not end up making me rich.

Facebook succeeded in large part because of its standardized look. You've certainly heard the outcry whenever they make a major design change, right? People generally don't like to relearn how to use something over and over again. Most websites look similar to one another because users are already familiar with how to use them: they know an "About Us" link will tell them about your organization. So, pay attention to design standards and conventions, and make your voice and style work with them, rather than the other way around.

Support openness and network neutrality.

Toward the end of one of the Wired articles, Tim O'Reilly says:

I have some sympathy for the position Google finds itself in its public stance on network neutrality with Verizon. At a certain point economics trumps philosophy. If business logic counts as "evil," we have taken our openness imperative too far. At the end of the day, whatever works for all concerned will win. As the Web moves from adolescence to adulthood, idealism is naturally giving way to pragmatism.

That's all well and good for a company interested in the best way to make money from its digital properties, but potentially allowing some people to get shut out is not pragmatic, from our perspective as social change organizations. We need everybody to have equal access to information, and I, for one, am not confident that even the innovative energies of companies like AT&T and Comcast will guarantee that.

As an illustration, here's a recent map of broadband connectivity from the Pew Center:

And here's a CensusScope map of poverty in the United States.


Given that the mobile Internet will soon outpace the traditional desktop/browser model, and that underserved communities are turning to mobile in large numbers, the idea that the Internet is somehow different when accessed through a phone is, at the very least, problematic. As Chris Anderson says at the end of his Wired article, "The Internet is the real revolution, as important as electricity; what we do with it is still evolving."