An Event Apart: How the Web Works

by July 28, 2010

In his How the Web Works talk at An Event Apart in Minneapolis, MN Jeff Veen dissected three key elements that make the Web work and how designers and developers can utilize them to make great experiences online. Here's my notes from his presentation:

  • Frederic Tudor: invented a plow to get ice faster. Most of his innovation came around shipping that got ice to people. He built an empire around this by turning ice into big business in New England.
  • But anybody who innovates early has competitors come along. Dr. John Dorrie worked on a mechanical method of keeping hospitals cold. His technology took off and was able to produce locally (without shipping). This really dropped the price of ice. Tudor’s methods were quickly irrelevant.
  • Ice production technology continued to get cheaper, smaller, and more accessible until it fit into everyone’s homes. This lead to the democratization of ice. GE started with refrigeration and moved on to all kinds of consumer appliances. Dorrie’s methods became irrelevant.
  • So ice started from harvesting and shipping. Move to centralized production. Then moved to de-centralized production. No one company made it through all of these transitions. This provides evidence of how innovations can disrupt existing businesses.
  • At the start of the gold rush in the United States, financial institutions would fund entrepreneurs to take extreme risks (going out West) to find Gold and bring it back. This took a long time to establish any kind of return/wealth. The pony express was set up to (Wells Fargo, American Express) move gold and news across the country. This increased the rate of financial transactions dramatically.
  • But when the time the first telegraph was sent from San Francisco to New York, the pony express got shut down two days later. They just moved information (about finances) across the wire. The same financial companies that funded entrepreneurs, used the Pony Express, and the telegraph survived. They’re still around today.
  • What’s the difference between the ice business and the financial business? Why did one set of companies make it through a series of disruptions and the others not make it?
  • It boils down to understanding precisely what business you are in.
  • Companies that were successful found the bigger picture behind what they were doing. Ice was all about health. Gold was all about communication. And today... media is not about the asset. It is about having people’s attention.
  • How do we make this transition online? How does it apply on the Web?

Three Fundamental Principles

  • The qualities that contribute to the success of the web are the qualities that will make us successful, too. We need to be native to the web.
  • 3 Principles: rough consensus with running code; the network is underneath everything we do; information can be charged for but charging is a constraint.
  • Rough consensus with running code. Running code will trump other forms of discussion.
  • The IMG tag was suggested by Marc Andreesen. Tony Johnson was also thinking about this, but wanted to use an ICON tag. IMG won because Marc shipped it first. Now it is used everywhere.
  • Typekit did two weeks of brainstorming for brand, value proposition, and interaction design. Went and talked to people. Shipped the minimum viable product they could. Stripped out as many features as possible so they could get code into people’s hands.
  • If you are not embarrassed when you ship your product, you waited too long –Reid Hoffman. You have to get out as soon as you can. All big Web products started out without a complete solution. The velocity and responsiveness of your team to user feedback will set the tone for your product more than any feature set.
  • Speed of iteration beats the quality of iteration. You can test more options more often.
  • Metcalf's Law: The value of network grows exponentially as you add more users. By referencing machines you can expand the size of the network. It grows in value faster than it does in users.
  • Information wants to be free. It’s so easy to duplicate a digital file –how can it be so wrong (legally).
  • Excludable: once I sell it and you consume it, it cannot be consumed again.
  • Rivalrous: a product can prevent access to those who don't pay.
  • Excludable & Rivalrous: an apple; Non-Excludable & Rivalrous: fishing; Excludable & Non-Rivalrous: satellite television; Non-Excludable & Non-Rivalrous: everything that is digital
  • Where you can’t stop people from using something without paying for it and it doesn’t go away when you consume it. Everything that is digital falls in this classification. These elements are native to how computers work.
  • Business models of the past applies to digital media are constraints. If you have content that can be free, you have a competitive advantage.
  • Shared history leads to culture and shared values. We can build our shared future together. Every decision you make influences the repository we manage to our memories and our knowledge. We are going to walk through the world experiencing these shared experiences.
  • There’s people that want to control or keep people safe from the Web. But this doesn’t reflect how the World works. Embrace how the Web works and do great things.