The tree’s branches are real but only there to support the leaves. The sizzle is enticing but the steak is why you sit down. The eye candy is cool, but the Web is really about words, and mostly written words at that.
The Net is richer and richer year by year, more stuff and more kinds of stuff and more channels it flows on. And then the apparatus around the stuff, the aggregators and recombinators and crawlers and widgets. I watch all this churn and I still think it’s the endless stream of characters across the world’s billions of screens that are the payload.
Consider, for example, from last month, Rob Scoble’s Exploring the 2010 Web. He’s got some thoughtful things to say on the Web and how to use it. Now cast your eyes to the right of the page. I see the usual clutter of blog apparatus; an opaque grid of little “subscribe to me” glyphs, some FriendFeed flow-of-the-moment, a few unexplained faces labeled “Members (949)”, then we’re into the Facebook crud, a map, and some trailing links that really should be above the fold.
Just distractions; none of it remotely as interesting as what he’s got to say in the main stream of text.
It turns out that the first time I read the piece, I guess Scoble was in the middle of that WordPress rejiggering, and there was no apparatus down the right at all; just the headline and the stream of link-rich, thought-rich, text. I really liked it. I was seeing, I thought, the core message getting the focus and respect it deserved, that’s all.
I am arguing that:
Words are more valuable than pictures.
Text is more valuable than audio or video.
Twitter is more valuable than FriendFeed.
At the end of the day, how could this not be true? Social networking gives me the warm-and-fuzzies and YouTube shows me what happened today in Iran, but action only comes from understanding and understanding only comes from explanation and explanation only happens in words.
It’s profoundly important, as Clay Shirky argues, that now we can all tell each other our own stories about ourselves and talk together about the big stories that everyone’s hearing. But that’s all words, just words.
And by the way, I’d rather have the text of Clay’s speech than the video. For things that matter, written words are unambiguously better than speech. To start with, anything that matters isn’t just written, it’s usually rewritten repeatedly (and more important, condensed). Plus, it has hyperlinks. Plus, it’s smaller and cheaper to ship around. Plus, it’s searchable. Plus, it works on more devices. (I acknowledge that only the first of these is fundamental; but that alone would be enough).
Thus, the fact that plain ol’ blogging and shiny new Twitter are still pretty well at the center of the value proposition of the serious part of the Net. Blogging has mostly seen off podcasting, and Twitter sailed smoothly away from its richer multimedia-enriched competitors.
What matters is getting the right words, undiluted, in front of the right people. That’s what the Internet is for. Everything else is (at best) the icing on the cake.