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The Biggest Thing the Web Brings is Choice. What Does Choice Make Scarce?

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 7, 2007

Seth Godin says the one thing that’s different about now versus then is choice:

The choice of more products.
The choice of more retailers. Many a click away.
The choice of more consumers to ask for an opinion.
The choice by marketers over who to market to (precision increases).
The choice of workers to be virtual or flexible or change careers.

That makes me ask what choice makes scarce, because what’s scarce is likely valuable.  Here are a few thoughts on what’s scarce in a world of limitless choice:

Intimacy is Scarce:  Despite Nick Carr’s musings about whether we might achieve intimacy on the web, I think most people feel the web is empowering them to have many many more very shallow relationships.  Stowe Boyd and Stephanie Booth muse about this in their blogs.  It boils down to two problems:  not enough time to have a deep enough relationship with everyone you want to, and not having the right tools to preserve the nuances of relationships in today’s Web 2.0 world.  Today’s Social Networks let you sign up more “friends”, and they’re working hard to let you carry your friends around.  But these efforts say little about how to parse those friends into meaningful groups, although Facebook is at work on groupings, the next “killer” feature.  Getting “nuanced” relationships on the web is the next killer feature, but I’m not sure simple groupings will be enough.  The nature of the content and interaction with those groups has to be nuanced.  This may or may not be a natural thing that people do automatically, but even if it is, the online vocabulary for expressing those natural moves is still evolving.  We can get a little of the intimacy of place on the web.  Tim Bray says it is starting to feel a little like stepping into the local coffee shop.  But we don’t have the intimacy of people yet.  Finding ways to reach out and touch people in a meaningful way online is valuable.

Concise Answers are ScarceGoogle has obtained a 40% share of online advertising.  That’s huge, and they’re outpacing the rate of online advertising growth by a huge amount, meaning they’re crushing a bunch of others out of existence as we speak.  Why did the world give it to them?  Because their search engine gives the most concise answers to the questions you ask and they’re able to tie advertising into that fabric just as concisely.  Ironically, we all know Google isn’t really concise at all, it’s just the most concise oracle available.  For many, finding the answeris a hunger.  They may not know the question, but with enough Twitter feeds, friends on Facebook, and blogs in their reader, it may become clearer.  Delivering concise answers is very valuable.

Time is Scarce:  Perhaps this one is a corollary to concise answers, because without concise answers, we waste a lot of time.  The web, and computers in general, are extremely time consuming.  Providing simple ways to eliminate time waste is valuable.

Blissful Peace is Scarce:  Losing one’s self in some mindless online activity is not scarce.  Finding true blissful peace in anything online is rare.  The web is a maelstrom of attention deficit disorder exacerbating inputs to our senses.  Many times all that choice is presented to us in a format that isn’t necessarily ideal for each individual’s personal learning styles.  Finding less jangling ways of reaching us with beautiful ideas, images, and sensations is valuable.

Deep Differences are Scarce:  The web moves in punctuated equilibrium.  Most of the time, choice is illusory.  It consists of thousands of minor variations on what are just a few common themes.  Most people crave consistency, because they can’t handle too many real choices.  And yet thousands of minor variations are strangely unsatisfying.  We can invest all the time, seek all the answers, work hard to get to depth, and we’re left wanting more, or at least wondering if this is it.  Delivering something deeply different to break us out of the drone of all that mundane choice is valuable.

Those who focus on these scarcities will be giving us something much more valuable than just another choice.  What web innovation can you envision that fills one of these scarcities even a little bit?

3 Responses to “The Biggest Thing the Web Brings is Choice. What Does Choice Make Scarce?”

  1. shamrin said

    Hi Bob, another outstanding blog entry (following a Seth Godin piece that had me thinking as well).

    These are all good points but I think the intimacy issue is the most powerful. It seems to me that we aren’t really designed to relate to each other in an intimate way on a broad internet-sized scope. There are a few really gifted people who can do this, I’ve heard it said that Bill Clinton connects with strangers as if they were intimate friends . I remember working with Gail McGovern, then at AT&T now at Harvard Business School, who seemed to me to have this gift. Intimacy is hard to create in person, how could we ever replicate it on a mass scale?

    If nuance is a building block of this, then perhaps there are ways. I’m a LinkedIn user and for quite a long time I’ve wished I could categorise my contacts based on something like “level of trust”. If you could implement such a system without trvialising the whole concept, perhaps people who coincidently shared the same high-level of trust could be made aware somehow of their shared respect. This mutuality would no doubt breed greater trust (that’s just the way these things work). Of course, you would then have to lie to the people on the lower trust levels, telling them that you don’t use that part of the system, so as not to break-down your existing relationship with them. See how hard these things are :-)?

  2. smoothspan said

    I’m hoping for more of an error of omission than an outright lie, LOL.

    Seriously, the key part is how the content is tailored based on the different groups, moreso than the creation of the groups. It has to work very smoothly so that each group has a seamless experience and can’t see “around the curtain” to realize they’re missing out on stuff.

    Today that works contextually by service. We know what LinkedIn is versus Facebook. So we join one for business networking and the other for a potentially different sort of networking.

    The challenge is in making it possible through the selection of applets, the selecting tagging of content, and potentially even having different visual design for different groups to do all that on one service.

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