The web as ecosystem

I recently finished reading Steven Johnson’s book Future Perfect. Being in the know as one of the “peer progressives” he lauds in the book, I found many of his points to be familiar. And all in all, I didn’t enjoy the book that much.

But there was one part that stuck with me. It was Johnson’s description of the web as a productive and interconnected ecosystem:

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth.

A productive ecosystem, such as a rain forest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, such as a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information.


The overall increase in information productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years.

Think about it this way:

Let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links,” as we used to call them, to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a journalism lecture at Columbia University and you write up a description with a link to the Columbia website that promotes the talk.

The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic.

Fast-forward to the present: You arrive at the lecture and check in at Foursquare, and tweet a link to a description of the talk.

Set aside the fact that it is now much easier to make those updates via your smartphone, compared with the cumbersome process of updating your website circa 1995. What happens to the information you send out?

It’s the same number of characters, with the same message: I’m going to this lecture tonight. But the ultimate trajectory of that information is radically more complex than it would have been fifteen years before.

For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your Twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through Foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the Web, which then attracts advertisers or the topic of journalism itself.

Because that tiny little snippet of information flows through a more dense and diverse network, by checking in at the lecture you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping Columbia promote its event; you’re helping a nearby bar attract more customers; you’re helping Google organize the Web; you’re helping people searching for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students.

When text is free to flow and recombine, new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.

That is as good an argument for a free and open internet as you’re bound to find, I think.

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