Web Surfing ? How about a new analogy for experiencing the Web ?

2003-07-15
 
Have you ever gone surfing? No, not through the channels on the television or through sites on the World-Wide-Web. Have you ever really gone surf riding in the ocean? Probably not. Let me tell you what it's like …

First, you must have a surfboard. Next, there needs to be an ocean beach where there are waves with enough power to push a person standing on a surfboard through the water. This is largely a function of the ocean currents that collide with the land on the particular beach. So, you have a board and you have found a beach where the waves are strong enough to push you as you balance on a piece of hydro-dynamically-designed fiberglass. Hopefully, you have also found a beach where the waves have enough shape and power for the ride to last more than a few seconds. Finally, there is the combination of tides, local wind and offshore storms that will impact the quality of the surf on any given day. I am also assuming that you have learned how to surf.


Characteristics of Surfing

Surfing involves an apparently simple series of steps: 1) reading the swells as they come toward you from the open sea to become a wave that crashes on the shore; 2) positioning yourself in front of a powerful portion of the swell; 3) paddling with your arms to catch the momentum of the swell as it becomes a wave, and then, when the force of the water has grabbed you and your surfboard is moving toward the beach at the necessary speed; 4) lifting yourself from lying on the board in the paddling position to standing on the board in the surfing position; and 5) maintaining your balance long enough to actually imagine that you were surfing the wave or riding the surf.

Once you have mastered these five basic steps you can think about maneuvering on a wave you have caught. It will also become possible to start mastering the moves that will impress the girls, or boys, watching from the beach: carving the face of the wave, cutbacks, getting tubed, going over the falls, and grabbing monster air. Cool. But wait, I have left out the most important part of surfing: you spend most of the time sitting on your board watching the sea and waiting for a wave which will provide you with the combination of power and shape that will give you the opportunity for a memorable experience. You want to have a ride that will make all of the sitting in the water worthwhile. There is a lot of waiting involved. Except in a few very special places on very special days, surfing requires the patience of Job or a Tibetan monk. The worst thing that can happen is that you choose and successfully ride a wave, and then, as you paddle back out to wait for another wave, you realize that you have missed the best waves of the day. They were just behind the one you chose. Surfing is characterized by watching, waiting, and disappointment and sometimes punctuated by moments of pure joy.

The places where most people surf are not like the places you see on TV or in the movies. The waves do not come in relentless sets of perfection. That only happens on highlight reels. This is even true at the hottest surfing spots around the world, the places where they have the big contests and shoot the movie scenes. Surfing contests happen at the time of year when the patterns of wind, weather and tide come together to create quality waves. The amateur surfer and the professional surfer must spend a lot of time waiting and contemplating the patterns of swells and the distribution of waves in their chosen spot in the sea. The board sports that provide instant gratification and the opportunity for continuous action are skateboarding, snowboarding and wakeboarding, not surfing.


Web Interaction

Now think about the last time you used the Web. Were you sitting and waiting for the best web site to come to you? Did you have to analyze the patterns of information flow to determine where you wanted to make your move? Were you willing to accept the fact that the currents and flow of the information were controlling your choices and experience? Did you have to demonstrate an amazing combination of skill, timing and balance to engage the desired experience or consume information? Were you gliding along the top of the Web's surface with only the bottom of your board, your vehicle, touching the surface of the information? Probably not. Surfing is not a good analogy for the way the Web works or for the way people use the Web.

A good analogy uses something people know to explain something that people don't fully understand. A good analogy makes the invisible visible. A good analogy uses simple terms to help explain complex processes and ideas. Surfing does not meet these requirements in relation to the World-Wide-Web. No analogy completely explains its target and any analogy looses explanatory power when it is taken too far, but "surfing" does not even start out as a good analogy for the Web, partially because most people do not fully understand the physical act of surfing, the one that involves the ocean and waves.

We, as Internet users, experience seekers, business people and academics, need to embrace a new analogy that provides clear insight into the functions and use of the Web. This analogy needs to make it possible for us to understand the nature of the Web and the different ways people use and experience it. I am probably too late in this attempt to change how we think about the Web. Surfing is already embedded in our collective consciousness and cognitive representations of Web use. The idea that "surfing" means "web surfing" is even codified in Webster's dictionary. Even so, there is a need to develop and refine an analogy that actually informs our understanding of the Web.


Hydrodynamic Analogy

The analogy I propose is also hydrodynamic. The Web can certainly be imagined as a giant body of water. It is an ocean of information and experiences. This ocean is so expansive that it is nearly impossible to imagine or even measure its actual size. It has depth as well as length and width, and like the ocean, the magnitude of this depth varies from one position to another. In some places the information is only ankle deep but in others it reaches thousands of meters below the surface. But unlike the ocean, which makes surfing possible, the Web is not effected by gravity, the orbit of the Moon or weather patterns. It does not have any momentum of its own and there are very few ripples on its surface.

Looking at Web users through this analogy, we can see that people are actually in the water and not sitting on top of it. Web use is characterized by the fact that people immerse themselves in this ocean of information. Web users are virtually swimming in this nearly limitless collection of networked information and experiences. You cannot use the Web and not get wet. Surfers do not want to fall into the water because it means the ride is over. The goal of swimming is to be in the water and enjoy what it has to offer. You do need to learn how to swim but it is not nearly as complex as learning to surf. The fact is that you may only be treading water at the surface when you casually encounter a Web site, but you are definitely in the water. If you dive down deep enough you can even lose your ability to find your way back to the surface, particularly in poorly designed Web sites. It is impossible to travel over the surface of the Web and actually experience anything, besides very few Web sites load fast enough to give us the sense of the ocean pushing us forward and enabling us to maintain our balance.

It is possible to jump from spot to spot in the Web using hyperlinks, or discover points of interest using a search engine, but you still have to jump into the water at the site when you get there. Search engines really act like boats that take us to places where we might find something interesting in the water. These boats, transportation devices, are also in the water. They cut through the water and enable people to move efficiently and effectively over great distances.


Differences in Activity

People do simply swim when they are in the ocean of experience and information called the World-Wide-Web. This analogy also provides a structure for understanding the different ways people act when they are in the water. Not everyone uses the Web for the same reason and even individuals come to the Web for different reasons at different times. This means that Web activity has features that vary according to the needs of the individual. Activity is also influenced by individuals' skills and experience in the water. It is important to understand these differences; particularly for businesses and IT firms who want to justify expenditures for Web-based ventures. The three ways people interact with the Web are SWIMMING, SNORKELING and SCUBA DIVING.

Swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers interact with an ocean of information and experiences. This is a much more vivid picture of how people use the web than reducing it all to tragically hip notion of Web"surfing". It maintains the experiential foundation of the surfing concept while creating a much more intimate connection between user and experience. I will further explain this in the next issue.
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