Back in our youth, when we had more time, less experience and big dreams, I suspect many of us will have spent plenty of time exploring. No, not the pith helmet “Dr Livingstone I presume” kind of exploring or the gap year partying that passes for the “travel broadening the mind” kind of exploring that goes on these days. No, I mean time well spent exploring music, literature or some other similar love.
For me it was comics (yes, I know, just how much more of the geek stereotype can I fulfil? Just the sandals and Star Trek insignia tattoo now, and I am complete). I started reading them when I was 7, and they changed my life. I fell in love with a particular title (2000AD) which, still running today, represents the absolute peak of British writing and comic artistry in this genre but 2000AD alone wasn’t enough, I wanted more. Remember, these were the days before graphic novels, VHS/DVD, the internet and more than 3 channels on the telly and there were few places in the country you could go to explore this world further. In fact, there was just one oasis, aptly titled “The Forbidden Planet” a comic shop in London, some 150 miles from my home town.
The Forbidden Planet became a mecca to me, I would make an annual pilgrimage down to London (or semi annual if my pocket money could stand it) just to spend hours in that store on Denmark Street, exploring the incredible new world that I had discovered. I still remember the place (it’s in a new location and much flasher now), I remember the layout, the euphoria of so much content in one place, I remember the smell of the floorboards and old paper and the excited apprehension that comes from being the country hick in the city.
The hours I spent in there lead me to all sorts of extraordinary places, new comics, books (even proper grown up ones that normal people read), all things I would never have found if I hadn’t had the opportunity for a tactile, tangible experience of what was effectively curated content. I’ll go out on a limb and make a guess that all of you will have had a similar experience (or maybe still do), it won’t necessarily have been comics, but I’ll bet you spent a lot of time in book stores, record shops, music shops, motorbike dealers whatever, doing exactly the same thing – exploring.
So apart from a little misty eyed nostalgia on my part, what’s the point of all this? Well, the point is that providing the exploratory part of discovery in a digital world is _bloody hard_. I’m not arguing the semantics here about the value of holding the album cover of your favourite artists new release poring over every detail vs looking at a Jpeg of the same, as I believe we will adapt to getting that experience digitally (and in many ways it can be richer), no this is about coming to a place filled with similar (but not the same) kind of content where you are free to explore your interests.
As the curators of content, we can do so much, we can provide the path to explore new worlds (both accurately and, as we get smarter, randomly yet with relevance) but we have to work hard to provide the “environmental” experience which becomes so important to us as individuals. The key actually comes back to the same old thing – “content is king” but in reality what this means (when it comes to exploration) is establishing a broad set of meta-data about individual elements and more importantly, being able to surface this meta-data as well as the specific item as part of the curated content (or search result). This alone won’t replace those dusty bookstores of our youth, but it will in some way help to form the bridge between the digital and analogue worlds.
In many ways, this is part of the sentiment behind Stefan’s recent allegations that traditional search is failing, this can easily be passed off as jingoistic hyperbole (as Danny Sullivan tried to postulate on Twitter) but in reality it’s a really important reminder that the web and more broadly the internet is no longer powered by links alone. This is about providing a digital service that is reflective of the analogue equivalent, serving each and every query with a broad result that includes a rich spectrum of responses and associated content, moving us waaaaaaay beyond those 10 blue links once and for all.