In just the 50 years the Internet has been in existence, it has evolved dramatically. What started as more or less a backup plan for a military communications system, has arguably today become the center of many peoples' daily lives. The internet was created in response to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, when the United States established the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to combat the USSR with technology like computers. By 1962, M.I.T. and ARPA scientist J.C.R. Licklide came up with a network for computers to talk to each other in the event of telephony communication getting destroyed.

Over the next several decades, the application of the internet changed. It shifted from a military weapon to a means for scientists and researchers to exchange data. It then became a way for regular citizens to communicate and ultimately grew into the consumer-centric platform we know today as the World Wide Web.

It was 1992 when Mosaic, which became Netscape, came on the scene and brought the Internet to the masses. It created the first user-friendly interface for the browser and made the search experience accessible to everyone by adding a graphical layer and navigation tools like scrollbars and clickable links. This helped usher in a new era for the internet and dramatically expanded the possibilities for distributing content.

What is Content?

The web has led to monumental changes in when, where and how we consume content. It's even changed the nature of content. We're no longer limited by what can be produced through a printing press, a television production studio or a radio broadcast. Now anyone with a relatively inexpensive internet connection can create a blog, or a website. This can include simple text and/or multimedia, like videos, photos, animation, graphics or audio files. All of this content is archived on the web so that everyone can access it. As the barriers to creating and consuming content fell, we found ourselves with an ever increasing amount of information to sort through.

How Do We Find Content?

As the web grew in size and popularity, so did the need for a better way to organize and navigate it. The evolution of how we find content on the web has been just as dramatic as the changes we saw in the internet itself. The digital nature of the web has enabled a rapid transformation of how we connect with content, from the early search engines and portals to social networking to niche interest groups.

Here's a brief look at how our ability to access content has progressed over the years.

Portals

The early days of search, which began with the first search engine Archie in 1990, were pretty perfunctory and also quite limited. Most of these early search engines, such as Yahoo!, were manually curated and managed. These portals were more of a directory for information organized under a limited number of topics, and they became inadequate as the sheer volume of content became overpowering.

When Google came upon the scene in 1998, it introduced a new way to categorize this massive body of data by organizing it around keywords, which made it easier for users to discover exactly what they were looking for. Finding content became much more efficient, but with that efficiency users also ended up narrowing their experience within the confines of what they were seeking. It didn't leave them as open to discovering something new and unknown.

Social Networks

The ability to discover the new and unknown got a little better with the introduction of social networks. In 1999, Friends Reunited launched in Great Britain, and so began the onslaught of social networks like Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. All of a sudden users now had connections and friends recommending content to them, instead of only finding content from conducting a specific search.

These social media networks became more popular and also made it even easier for everyone to publish content. So, the volume of information grew. It led to an even bigger landscape to search through, and users also ended up getting bombarded with content that was interesting to their social connections but not necessarily relevant to them, since we don't share all the interests of our social and professional connections.

Interest Groups

Interest groups have been around since the early days of the internet. They have evolved to help users find like-minded people who share relevant information with each other. This evolution has in some ways been spurred by the proliferation of irrelevant content recommendations from social networks. What started out as crude internet forums have led to more sophisticated interest groups sharing content around common interests, such as food reviews on Yelp or book reviews on Amazon or sharing pictures on Pinterest.

As more and more users found connections around common interests, the number of communities grew. This was a great way to discover content within a specific topic, but if a user was interested in more than one topic that meant keeping up with more than one interest group.

The Future of Content Discovery

That brings us up to a more recent evolution in online content discovery. Through advances in artificial intelligence and deep learning, new platforms have been created that combine the breadth of algorithmic search with the ability to organize that data within personalized topics of interest.

We are now able to create a hyper personalized internet experience tailored specifically for an individual user. Take a platform like Flipora, for example. It recommends content that is based on the online activity of a user, which means it recommends only content that is relevant to them. StumbleUpon allows users to flip through different websites that match up to the previously-displayed interest of users. Theneeds is another service that pulls up content in which users have shown interest. Services like these build user profiles that not only track what each individual likes, but evolve to stay up to date with a user's changing taste.

These companies are part of a larger trend towards a rise of artificial intelligence-based personal assistants like Siri & Google Now. This category of apps and services use algorithms that automatically predict what kind of content a user is most likely to be interested in at any point in time. They then bring the relevant content to the forefront automatically. This might sound like science fiction but the growing popularity of these services indicate that the future may have already arrived. For instance, Google Now and Siri automatically bring up informational content like traffic, weather reports and sports scores based on previous user actions. As technology advances, you can expect more services like these to deliver much of the content that you want whenever you want it.

Published on: Oct 7, 2014