Have you seen Consumating.com? It’s a dating and community site where members write their own self-describing metatags. If you’re looking for an “untrustworthy, Lothario, harem-keeper,” you’ll find Lane Becker (He’s a funny guy). Follow the tags “California, girls, and artist,” and you find Lane’s wife, Courtney Skott. Lane and Courtney were early beta testers.
The site was created by Austin-based developer Ben Brown. Like the makers of del.icio.us, upcoming.org, Flickr, and Wikipedia, Brown is among the vanguard of independent developers defining a new vernacular for the Web.
Something is happening right now, and the developer community has an electric gleam in its eye. Curious, inventive people are making cool stuff again. There’s been a notable shift, and it’s incredibly exciting.
We’re nearing the tenth anniversary of the Netscape IPO, when a flood of capital launched the Internet into mainstream culture. Those were heady times that changed the world. When I started as an interaction designer at Netscape in January of 1996, we were 750 people crammed three-to-a-cube into two small buildings.
I’m fairly sure I got the job because I told Hugh Dubberly, then creative director, that I believed hypertext would change the way people think—that by becoming more aware of our non-linear thought patterns, we would begin to comprehend the complex nature of understanding. In the Web, I saw the demise of ivory-tower specialization and the rise of integrative thinking.
We had such big thoughts back then. We were excited, idealistic, and naive. It was a time when the Internet richly rewarded smart, passionate people. Anyone was free to create wildly improbable, but very cool, things.
Of course, that changed. With real money came real responsibility, and explosive growth prompted implosive failure. By fall of 2000—just five years after the launch—the innovators were tired and the “innovations” failed to impress.
When the money left, the Internet development community entered a period of refinement and reflection. It gave us a deep appreciation for business basics and softened the shrill rhetoric that so often alienated Silicon Valley from the rest of the world. Pragmatism dominated, and we focused on delivering effective outcomes. Instead of invention, we were more inclined to think about sunk costs, resource allocation, and maximizing value.
But now, just now, the landscape has again shifted. Two months ago, Jesse James Garrett published an essay that provided a few diagrams, a basic description, and a name for a development technique that’s been around for years. Called Ajax, this approach removes the redraw-refresh paradigm for interacting with web applications. The firestorm of excitement around the idea took us all by surprise. In mere days, the “Ajax” meme was solidified. It was a tipping point.
For five years we’ve been working to refine what we know, and rest a bit after the madness of the nineties. And now we’re ready to dive in again—wiser, perhaps, but no less captivated by invention than we were ten years ago. Sure, everyone is excited by Google Satellite Maps and Yahoo’s acquisition of Flickr, but it goes beyond that.
I was sitting in a conference room with a pair of brilliant developers last week, watching them show-and-tell the latest geeky gadgets. Greg Veen loaded an Ajax-based file upload routine that was recently added to Ruby on Rails. Michael Buffington, a developer who’s been around the block too often to be easily impressed, said earnestly, “I think I’m gonna cry.” A few days later he wrote this on his weblog:
“The Web as we know it is changing probably more than it has since the first graphic showed up… The idea of the webpage itself is nearing its useful end. With the way Ajax allows you to build nearly stateless applications that happen to be web accessible, everything changes.”
What will happen when amateurization and folksonomies make their way into enterprise web applications? What happens when IT managers can tag Oracle’s product documentation with their own words? Where will our bookmarks go when the idea of the “webpage” becomes obsolete?
Invention inspires invention. Ideas are collapsing into each other, recombining, and having powerful effects. The Internet has always been a medium for democratization, and by reconnecting with our idealism we’re once again uncovering its poetry, nobility, and transformative power.
If you’re not yet amazed, inspired, and a little anxious, you might want to consider it. Then get a good night’s sleep and perhaps take a rejuvenating vacation. We’re going to look back at Spring 2005 as a milestone. Watch closely, ladies and gentlemen. Things are about to change in a very big way.