Saturday, March 24, 2012

Is the Web really dead?

Which serves users better—the Web or apps? This controversy emerged after a famous 2010 article in Wired magazine proclaimed that the Web is Dead. The authors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff wrote that apps would replace websites as the major source of information and entertainment for users. Librarians are naturally worried about technological innovations that potentially have impact on the resources that library users request. Pew Research decided to survey experts in the field of Internet technology to see what they said about future directions. The report, released this week, sheds light on what librarians and others can expect in the future. It is well worth your time to read the whole report on the Pew Research website, but here are a few highlights.

The fear of many experts is that the Web will be broken into many fragments, each one an app designed to lead users to a particular site. The value of apps is that they are easily browsed on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. As more and more users turn to these small-scale entries to the online world, their use of apps will increase (Cisco predicts that by 2016 there will be 16 billion mobile devices in use). But one of the major values of the Internet has been the serendipity that leads browsers to jump from one site to another to investigate sidelines and ideas generated. Will these users in the future be more likely to stay in the narrow realm of the app, whether it is a magazine, newspaper, or retailer?

The survey of experts conducted by Pew Research and Elon University collected a lot of information about what is expected in the future. To the vital question of whether apps would replace the Web, 59% of the experts agreed that by 2020 the Web would still be a vital and growing resource for people, although many individuals would use apps for specific purposes. Only 35% of respondents believe that apps will largely replace the Web by 2020.

The reason for optimism about the development of the Web seems to have grown out of the conviction that people enjoy the open environment of websites that allow them to explore much more of the online world than apps do. Perhaps this quote from the report sums it up most concisely:

“The gated bubble worlds formed by app markets, Facebook, and other private spaces will bloom and fade, while people will keep gathering in the open spaces.” – Jerry Michalski, founder of Relationship Economy Expedition and consultant at the Institute for the Future

What does this mean for librarians who serve young people? Well we are certainly not going to stop collecting apps and recommending them to patrons. But we should remember their limitations and help youngsters to learn how to handle a larger Web experience. Some parents and other adults prefer to have their children limited to apps that contain carefully controlled content, but if we want young people to grow intellectually, we also need to help them explore a larger world. And we need to help parents accept the fact that we cannot control and limit all content that children view. Our role is to guide and explain and to gradually help children move into the larger world, not to keep them locked into the safety of any limited bubble world.

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