The Fourth Generation Web Experience

Where we’ve been…

The World Wide Web has existed for less than 15 years, but in that time, the “experience” of the Web has already evolved through several major phases.

1992-96. The first-generation Web page was a text document with links to a few other pages on the Web. Mosaic was the browser of choice … because it was the only browser available. A few people had heard of the Web but, to most, the Internet meant e-mail.

1996-2001. The second-generation Web site attempted to move beyond the limitations of Web hypertext markup to imitate the experience of magazine design. A beautiful appearance was often more important than its meaning. Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer forgave poor markup in order to make the experience as pleasing as possible.

2001-03. The third-generation Web architecture supported Web standards so that all users — with various computers, software — could use a Web site, even with limited vision and hearing. Mozilla and Netscape became the browsers of choice, since they did the best job of interpreting Web standards. Function became far more important than form.

What will the Web experience become in the fourth-generation? In what ways will it include what came before, but also move to a new plateau?

What drives the Web forward?

Before looking forward, we should briefly look back over the innovations and insights that allowed Tim Berners-Lee to start developing the Web standards we use today.

In a 1945 article in Atlantic Monthly called “As We May Think,” government scientist Vannevar Bush suggested that the post-World War II military should turn to the development of information technology that would help make human knowledge more accessible.

In 1965, Harvard student Ted Nelson coined the word “hypertext” to refer to the potential connections between concepts in authored documents, usually text. Apple Computer brought the concept to a larger audience when Bill Atkinson created HyperCard in 1988 and the company distributed it for free with Apple computers. In 1991, Berners-Lee transformed the potential for computers and networks to create connections between people — regardless of the computer they used — into the World Wide Web.

But why did each of these innovations catch on? Why did they catch fire? What human needs did they meet in order to spark the imaginations of millions of people?

Fifty years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that human growth was a continuum that began when we satisfied our biological needs, such as food and water, and then expanded through progressively more expansive needs: for protection and shelter, for belonging to a family unit and community, for creating a legacy that will outlast us, for finding meaning in the world.

None of this was new; this perennial philosophy of human development can be traced back to early human writings. More recently, in the twentieth century, William James, Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Maslow and Ken Wilber, proposed that there is a human drive toward growth that includes both biological and psychological evolution — and that this drive also appears in human societies — that is, toward connection with other people (and with other people’s ideas and knowledge) . Toward integration.

From this point of view, learning and growing are closely interrelated, and our society is even beginning to consider learning and education a basic need. In relationship to this development, the desire to access information — some of it useful knowledge, some of it of questionable value — has been democratized with the advent of the World Wide Web. The exponential growth of access to personal publishing on the Web might be explained by a need to expand the boundaries of what we know. With a move toward open standards in Web publishing, freedom to share the common knowledge of humanity can grow.

Where we’re going…

In order to satisfy a human desire to connect, learn, and grow, the World Wide Web will itself have to grow beyond the technologies that gave it birth, and toward standards that cannot be monopolized. This transformation is already underway. Extensible Markup Language (XML) allows computers and people to share the structure of information rather than just present it. Tim Berners-Lee’s Semantic Web will help media creators present the context and meaning of their work, as well as the content itself. Information can start to become shared knowledge.

The fourth-generation Web experience will be personal and immersive. It will allow people to take on various identities — that of teacher, student, parent, child — and explore the world through different perspectives. It will present experiences that are closer to the real-world using greater, sense-oriented emulations — interactive choices, ambient sounds, peripheral vision, touch — all integrated into rich media storytelling. And, of course, it will build upon that which came before: hyperlinked text, images, pleasing design, intuitive organization and meaningful context.

Above all, the fourth-generation Web experience will provide meaning. It will speak to us more viscerally and more deeply than simple abstract text can do. It will serve, more and more, as a tool for community building, for shared evaluation and context and for dialogue. We will be able to publish our hopes and concerns to each other. We will be creators. We will be better able to share our life experiences.

What’s already happening …

We can already glimpse some of these possibilities, thanks to the work of the advanced scouts in communications media. New tools make it possible for people with little technical experience to create digital content that can be shared on the Web. Here are a few of the current initiatives in Web publishing:

Simpler authoring techniques

The original Web browser was intended to be an authoring and collaboration tool that allowed groups of people to combine their knowledge and edit content together. New authoring tools allow multiple people with very little experience to publish text and media.

Digital media creation

New tools allow a novice to combine images, video and audio to digital assets, making personal rich media storytelling experiences possible. With increasing availability of high-speed Internet connections, the Web has begun to integrate time into the experience.

Learning content modules

Innovations in simple authoring and publishing make it possible for people to teach through shared multimedia. Without needing the infrastructure of educational or publishing institutions, those with knowledge can share their own presentations of their areas of academic and life expertise.

Immersive geospatial experiences

Consumer Geographic Positioning Satellites (GPS) and Geographic Information System (GIS) software make it possible to determine one’s current location to within 20 feet and to create maps that provide the context of place, on any scale — from a blade of grass to a college campus, to the planet. Add to space the context of time — from the geological past to the projected future — and theme and one can be immersed totally in a place.

Syndicated headline exchange

The ability to publish summaries, evaluations and the addresses of timely assets — such as news headlines and media assets — in a format that can be syndicated to Web browsers, opt-in e-mail lists, and news readers will allow people to keep up to date with new Web assets about topics of interest by connecting with trusted sources.

Micropayment for content

None of this can happen for free. The ability to receive small payments — mandatory or voluntary — allows smaller bites to be purchased, rather than requiring subscriptions for services.


Like-minded people can come together by sharing lists of their favorite assets (sites, pages, images, movies), or by participating on discussion boards or instant messaging. Successful communities can serve a human need to belong.

All of these assets can be identified by universal addresses (URLs and URIs), so that we can see, evaluate and share not only our own knowledge, but exchange our evaluations of other sources of knowledge. For the first time, a person with very few resources can create meta-knowledge; one can become a respected source of knowledge about the context of knowledge itself.

What we need to do?

In this context, then, what’s next for the Web in higher education? First, we must make it easier for members of the academic community to publish their knowledge on the Web. We must build a foundation that solves our client’s basic publishing needs, such as:

  • Content authoring and updating
  • Site templates and guidelines
  • On-line versions of campus maps
  • Rich media storytelling, news features
  • Virtual tours and exploration
  • Image preparation and management
  • Image gallery generation
  • Formatted Web form professing
  • Headline syndication

We need to encourage Web production and operations colleagues to improve services in the areas of portal interfaces to enterprise databases, Web server functions such as PHP and MySQL, and search engine optimization. We also need to develop policies that protect freedom of speech, but also define behavior that supports the a code of ethical conduct.

Pulling it all together: the Experience Engine

Beyond those foundations, however, I believe that developing a repository of meta-knowledge — evaluations of media assets ranked by credibility — will be a Holy Grail of the fourth-generation Web experience. Already, there are glimpses as to what this may look like.

Google ranks each Web site and page with a formula that includes the number of other sites that point to it. Amazon keeps track of books that others have purchased on the same topic. EBay depends on the ratings of participants to verify the trustworthiness of sellers.

The question is: how can we capture, share and prioritize the opinions of our valued peers, whether student, faculty, staff, colleague or alumni/ae?

Higher education can take a leadership role in using the World Wide Web to enhance learning and human development by developing a service that builds relationships between current and potential members of the academic community in a brand new way. I call this new service an Experience Engine. On the surface, it is similar to a search engine. But beyond simply indexing all digital assets available on a school’s corner of the World Wide Web, it also builds upon the experience and knowledge of all members of the colelge community.

The Experience Engine would be a relational database that matches users profiles and on-line assets recommended by peers. The goal would be to provide a personalized, on-line view of the institution for the entire life cycle. The Experience Engine would be like a well-connected guide: one who knows everything about the school, who knows what people just like you want to know and who points you to the experience that’s pre-selected for you.

Web assets would be evaluated in several ways — by the choices users make, by submitted reviews and by peer evaluation of reviewers — and placed within a variety of scales:

  • Time. Assets can represent moments in time, such as upcoming events, periods in college history or predictions about the future of the region.
  • Place. Assets can describe campus buildings, nearby towns or places where college people live or visit.
  • Topic. Assets can focus on specialized or general topics, whether academic or extra-curricular.
  • Credibility. Assets would be evaluated for credibility and veracity.

Users would be able to choose among various identities depending on how they currently feel, from an anonymous experience, to identifying with a particular group — such as prospective students, parents, secondary-school staff, prospective staff members, current students, alumni/ae —  to searching for experiences with their own individual identity. User could choose assets that are guided (a narrative video or Flash segment) or choose to assemble discrete tidbits of information.

The Experience Engine would build on improvements in authoring tools and techniques rolled out in 2003 and 2004. With sufficient resources, it could be developed in a collaborative fashion with other institutions of higher education. It could gather and share the meaning of Web assets in a way that would enhance the college Web experience.

Jay Collier: 3/1/03, 4/25/03