Born Digital, Not Yesterday: Next-generation Web User Seeks Interactivity

Parents: Ask your teenager to write a "get well" letter to Aunt Edith who is confined to a bed at a nursing home. They are probably looking at you like you just asked them to explain Kepler's Third Law. "C'mon mom, nobody writes letters anymore," they whine. "They're not cool."

While it may be a question of changing social mores, more than likely it is the way today's young people were raised in relation to technology. "The next generation was born digital," according R.J. Pittman, CEO, president, director, and co-founder of Groxis, Inc., who gave the opening keynote at the 2006 annual NFAIS Conference in Philadelphia. The "next generation," he describes, was raised communicating through cell phone, either voice or text messaging. The audacity you have to suggest they (gasp!) actually pick up a pen to communicate is nothing short of alarming. It simply isn't as natural for them to put their thoughts down on paper in a clearly written missive, get an envelope, address it, stamp it, and trudge out to a mail box than it is to (duh!) dash off a text message and hit Send. Better immediate information than perfectly penned, right?

Today's Web content users don't wait, according to Pittman. He says, "They Google, they instant message, and they blog." He calls this desire for instant information the "Google Effect" and explains that while this effect is not universal, its characteristics have set a standard. "A search for information has to be simple, unbounded, unrestricted," but most importantly, he says, "it has to be fast."

Speed is clearly a factor in the digital equation, but as the title of this year's NFAIS Conference, Content Unleashed: Delivering the New Information Experience, suggests, content providers must give users the ability to find content quickly and easily, including user-generated content. "The new information experience is really applying Web 2.0 opportunities to the foundation of the Web as we know it now," says Stephen Abram, VP of innovation at SirsiDynix, a provider of technology solutions for libraries. "Web 2.0 is about the more human aspects of interactivity. It's about conversations, interpersonal networking, personalization, and individualism."

We're seeing this interactivity between users on social networking sites such as Friendster and MySpace, where users are encouraged to post their own content on the site in the form of a blog, photo, or video or audio file, and subsequently "tag" the content so users browsing the site can easily find it. "Context is the word of the day here," says Abram. "Such technologies that can serve as the emerging foundation of Web 2.0 are RSS, wikis, AJAX, APIs, blogging, and commentary and comments functionality."

One way for content providers to give users quick and easy access to their content—with an emphasis on context—is through an open application programming interface (API). Essentially, if a content provider has its data stored in an open API, other users may copy and paste the source code from the API to construct one of their own applications. This "sharing" of source code can transform once-static interfaces into dynamic, aesthetically pleasing ones.

"The knowledge worker expects new tools, content, new ways to find, view, and use information and to share it with others," says Cindy Hill, manager of Sun Microsystems, Inc.'s SunLibrary. "It's a collaborative, participatory age and people are no longer working in isolation."

This sentiment was echoed at an NFAIS panel discussion called The New Information Experience: Products, Services, and Features that Deliver the Cool Factor. Panelist Howard Ratner, CTO and EVP at Nature Publishing Group, discussed mash-ups—ways of combining either the content or the functionality of several Web sites to deliver a novel, useful experience. "By using an existing API for Google Earth and overlaying avian flu outbreaks, users get a new visual," says Ratner.

Through interactivity comes discourse and learning, which leads to knowledge. "Knowledge isn't the end product" though, according to SirsiDynix' Abram. "Decision making, invention, entertainment, and discovery are the user's goals. When we get it right we have a knowledge ecology that is involving, interactive, and inspirational." And, in keeping with the next generation, he says, "That will be cool."