In this wired age, there is always a need to make
order out of the overabundance of valued information. As a result,
the demand for information infrastructure services as provided by
companies like Infospace
who take disparate sources of information and shape them into manageable
formats on behalf of major clients like AOL, is not likely to abate.
Two fledgling companies are pursuing two very
different paths in a quest to make Internet content more intelligible
and useful. But their impact - both would allow the user to drill
down and enrich their research effort with ease - is similar. They
are both working to become "context providers."
SiteSherpa - The Insider's View of the Web
New York-based SiteSherpa
is working on a "web travel companion" which aims to provide
useful background information on the sites you visit. There is a
precedent in this genre: browser companions such as Alexa
which tell you a little bit about the sites you're visiting.
Let's start with an explanation of Alexa. Alexa
is a free download that works with your browser (it seems to work
best with Internet Explorer). Operating in a toolbar or frame attached
to the browser, it gives you an indication of how popular a site
is (overall rank of web site, based on the number of Alexa visits,
which is a pretty good approximation). It tells you about related
sites, and offers contact information if it's available. Reader
reviews and ratings are also a part of the Alexa formula. However,
Alexa has languished somewhat under its new parent, Amazon.
SiteSherpa, like Alexa, takes advantage of the
Explorer Bar - a frame which opens in Internet Explorer either horizontally
or vertically to provide "companion applications."
SiteSherpa was started by journalists who believed
that Internet users are too often visiting sites without any background
context about the reliability of the information. Their concept
is to provide site reviews by Insiders - experts in a given field
- to allow users to surf with this needed background info at hand.
The SiteSherpa web site also offers a kind of
trend watch as a media presence in its own right. It contains reviews
and discussions about what's interesting out there on the web. It's
kind of a pro's-eye-view of the business of content.
Project Napa - The Science of People-Watching
The youthful Silicon Valley veterans behind Project
Napa are working on what might be termed a "content infrastructure
technology" related to biography. Indeed, it may well be that
the addictive and educative A&E program, Biography, was
a partial inspiration for this. At the least, the popularity of
Biography is an indicator that, for better or worse, today
we are more focused than ever on celebrity. Major celebrities have
become an industry; minor celebrities can live for years almost
entirely off their fame or infamy. Just ask John Wayne Bobbitt or
So how does it work? Something along the lines
of how the embedded stock symbols in an online news article often
lead to deeper information related to the company in question. In
other words, it's a matter of taking disparate forms of biographical
information and standardizing them, so that a dossier can be built
in a consistent way. Terence Pua, CEO of Project Napa (and founder
of justquotes.com), begins with this proposition and then begins
to explore its possibilities, and they become more compelling as
you contemplate them.
For example, you might ask yourself, why are the
organizing principles of our web searches set up in the way they
are? Although it's certainly cool that you can perform image searches
on Lycos or AltaVista, searching by keyword offers a very imperfect
way of finding a collection of the best images of, say, Tiger Woods
winning tournaments. Although XML may soon improve the precision
of search, we're not there yet, and as far as I can understand it,
much of the Internet's legacy content will never have the right
tags attached. If you were able to pull up a standardized dossier
on Woods, on the other hand, it would eventually offer the full
range of photos because information provider partners, Woods' staff,
and Woods' fans would work to add them systematically to the database.
It sounds like Project Napa is going to need a lot of data storage
Here's another potential application. Let's say
you want to quickly check on the biographical background of someone
who works for a company you're doing business with. The Project
Napa concept would provide a platform for any user - including the
person in question - to add data to a bio, including the person
themselves. Over time, most anyone in business would have an easily
accessible dossier. The bio would then be much more accessible in
a standard format - you wouldn't be stuck trying to look the person
up on Google. Bios could be very extensive, linked to dozens of
attributes including more reliable forms of information like date
of birth, to rumor, opinions, and gossip.
Another major application of this might be to
allow readers of online articles to have quick access to deeper
information about the author. So often, authors and reporters are
a "cipher" - we know little about the background they
bring to their task. Added context will allow readers to better
judge the credibility of content. It would also make it easier for
readers to find other materials by the same author.
There are some good reasons for not wanting this
to transpire, of course. Is standardized information always going
to paint the picture you want people to see of yourself? Is standardized
information - built through the efforts of various people with various
motivations - the same as accurate information? Isn't it possible
to know too much about someone? What about those notoriously private
people who would rather the press not even know the names of their
children? Clearly, there are downsides to this kind of project.
But as with other information revolutions that we've witnessed in
the past decade, there's approximately zero chance that it can be
A sneak peek Project Napa site will be launched
to a limited audience in the next few weeks. One thing's for sure:
Pua will never be telling a tale whenever he tells someone at a
cocktail party that he's a "people person."
More Texture, Less Searching
These are two exciting products which, in essence,
provide context to web surfers. They hold considerable promise to
add texture to what is now a sometimes flat online experience.
The provision of background context for surfing
is going to encounter some barriers to adoption. The less cumbersome
the services are to use, the better.
Other services in this genre have made bold choices
which may prevent widespread adoption. Third
Voice, for example, was a cool and elegant product that allowed
users to stick comments on web sites that other Third Voice users
can see. They’re like little sticky notes and showed up as red dots
or highlighted items on the page. A look at the web site indicates
that they’ve been revamping the service. Highlighted items are now
orange underlines. And the whole nature of the activity seems to
have been changed, from a peanut-gallery style commentary to a (potential)
smorgasbord of info. In their words: "Ordinary words are transformed
into links to valuable and interesting information on sports, music,
entertainment . . . and more!"
As it stands, Third Voice may still be too cumbersome
to enjoy widespread adoption. Plus, they might be biting off more
than they can chew, offering biography along with numerous other
background links for any word, as opposed to Project Napa which
focuses only on dossier-building about people.
Final question: if a celeb like Christina Aguilera
is washed up by the age of twenty-two, will Project Napa and Third
Voice do the honorable thing and disappear them from the database?