We live in weird times.
Technology (and society along with it) seems to be moving at the speed of light, and the future, for the most part, appears uncertain.
As AI cements itself as a dominant technological force, with some touting it as impactful as the advent of personal computing, it can be tough for people (and businesses) to predict what the brave new world will look like.
However, to quote Simone Weil:
“The future is made of the same stuff as the present."
There’s a lot we can learn from what currently is, and what was, that can give us a glimpse of what will be.
So let’s look at the past and the present, identify the concurrent themes and follow that thread to a future where we don’t just interact with the Internet, we converse with it.
The period of time where the Internet was being widely adopted in the mainstream is most commonly known as Web1.0 or as “the read-only web”.
I’ve written previously about the differences between Web1.0, Web2.0 and Web3.0, so I won’t go into massive amounts of detail here, except for zeroing in on the salient facts.
This period of digital communication was broadly a “one-to-many” type of communication, meaning the “one” (like a blogger or a company), published their content to the internet for “many” to read.
This was also a one-way communication medium. You couldn’t use the Internet in its infancy to create multi-faceted discourse (like we see now), mostly you said your piece and others were reduced to the passive role of either choosing to read it or not.
However, the most important theme to consider is that behind the technological limitations of the time, there was a clear intent to use this new technology to communicate.
The core essence of the Internet is that it is a communication medium first and foremost.
It’s easy to forget when using the Internet that we are using a communication device, as it is so broad in its scope, and when we think of communication tech, we think of legacy technology like telephone and SMS messaging.
Telephone and SMS communication fit our concept of “communication” tech because we tend to think of “communication” as a one-to-one medium, and they perfectly fit that bill.
The Internet in its infancy was the most sophisticated “one-to-many” communication platform that has ever been devised, but its core issue was the “one-way” bit.
Until Web2 ushered in a slew of technological and societal changes…
No technological force has simultaneously done so much good whilst also eroding the fabric of society in the same way as user-generated content (UGC), and you only have to spend about five minutes on Instagram or the “Platform Formerly Known As Twitter” to understand my point.
UGC (a core tenet of Web2) was the solution to the “one-way” problem that defined the early Internet, and was the process of enabling users to, well, generate their own content.
In the era of UGC, the “one-to-many” relationship between users and the internet turned into a “many-to-many” as advances in data storage and product development allowed tech entrepreneurs to build “platforms” that allowed users to post content and interact with others’ content as well.
This advancement felt groundbreaking, and it certainly was, but it was to be expected when you consider what I said in the first section.
The Internet is a communication device, and we are looking to constantly improve on this device whilst opening it up to the most users as we can.
What Web2.0 did was turn a communication device into a fully interactive communication device, at a scale that no other medium can replicate.
The two tenets of interactivity and communication are the core threads to follow when considering the future of the internet.
Almost all improvements and tweaks to the internet are made in the name of increasing the interactivity and/or communicativeness of the medium.
Currently, you see attempts to further these tenets of the Internet in small piecemeal ways.
Platforms use algorithms to further tailor their experience to the users, in the attempt to increase interactivity.
Tech behemoths like Meta pour billions into advanced AR and VR functionality to increase the communicativeness of the Internet, and expand into 3D mediums.
So, to determine the future of the internet, you have to look at how we can use new tools like generative AI to increase communicativeness and interactivity.
Previously, the Web was built in static HTML and CSS as a series of files essentially, loaded onto the user's computer through a browser and read.
Currently, the Internet as you and I know it is largely built in a handful of frameworks, that break websites up into components.
These components can be tweaked and altered depending on factors like context, user input and even things like time of day or user location. This can help webmasters create more personalised experiences, enhancing the chances a user will interact with the message and increase the effectiveness of the communication taking place.
I think the next evolution of this process is the application of generative AI to these components to create a “conversational UI” rather than a “personalised UI”.
Currently, the gold standard of web design is to tailor the components to what you can decipher about the user.
A simple example of this is suggesting content similar to the content a user has previously browsed.
A more complex example is an algorithm that adjusts the users entire feed to increase their interactivity with a platform.
This leads to a “personalisation” of the experience.
However, “personalising” something is not quite the same as “conversing”, and when you consider the two core vectors through which the Internet is improved upon, you can see that “conversational” experiences will be far more impactful than “personalised” ones.
A promotional email with your name added in by a CRM is a personalised experience. A sales call is a conversational experience. One is much more impactful than the other as it is a better way to communicate.
That’s why “conversational” will beat “personalised”.
A conversational UI would learn in real time what the user is interested in, and be able to create (not just suggest) content specifically for them, to more effectively communicate the point the page is trying to get at.
Think of it this way: a slick marketing campaign may use data capture to find out what users went onto the pricing page of a specific product. They’ll then use this data to target those users with ads specific to their stage of the buying process.
This is a personalised approach.
However, with a “conversational UI”, you’d be able to take the data that you know about a user (like the fact they viewed your pricing page) and completely customise your website depending on the metadata you have about a user, creating a unique and constantly adjusting experience for each user, increasing the effectiveness of the communication between your brand and the prospect.
This is an advancement on “personalisation” as the updates will be real time, and with the power of generative AI, you’ll be able to create new content specifically for a user, and adjust your website's responses dependent on user input, like their search history on your site.
This will make each website visit like a “conversation” with your brand, rather than just looking at a static webpage.
“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”
This kind of change usually begins with a bleeding edge company like OpenAI, who pioneer a technology like ChatGPT, and then democratise it through an API or some proliferation of the technology, combined with a slew of competitors jumping on the bandwagon to create a snowball effect, as we’re seeing right now.
Then, inquisitive devs start working with this technology to create test projects, usually buggy at first, but then they start becoming adopted more and more widely.
The current architecture of the web is a veritable powder keg waiting for this kind of change.
A framework like React, which is exceedingly popular, consists of components that are fed inputs to render and rerender on the user's journey through a website.
Combining OpenAI’s API with these components would be child's play for a developer (if I can use the API, it can’t be that hard), which could create fully interactive components that increase the interactivity and communicativeness of a webpage.
Put simply, bravery.
Half of all digital innovation is just taking risks and measuring the results.
A good starting point is to stop looking at your website or product as a loudspeaker, and instead look at it as a way to have a conversation with your users.
Use it to decipher what you can about your ICP, and then work to update the user's experience based on this data.
That can be something simple like an A/B testing schedule, or more advanced like talking to your developers to build interactive web components.
That will give you the building blocks to then add generative AI into the mix via APIs or your own model if you have a strong enough engineering talent pool.
Adapting your mindset is as important as adapting your website, so make sure you’re putting in steps to make the information transfer as two-way as possible.
Every input from a user, every link clicked, is a communication. Use this to advance the conversation.
Disagree vehemently? Leave a comment below with what you think I have missed or where you think the future of the internet lies!