David Bowen: Shaggy dogs days of the internet

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I was talking to the dog the other day as we walked in the park. She is only averagely intelligent but has a good grasp of digital business. So, I asked her, how is the worldwide web going to develop? “No idea,” she said. “But I do think you can at least find a logic in your ignorance. If in doubt, draw a matrix.”

She picked up a stick in her mouth and drew a two-by-two matrix. Along the top she wrote “Plausible” and “Implausible” and down the side she put “Works” and “Doesn’t work”. “The easy ones are top left and bottom right – plausible and work, or implausible and don’t,” she said. “The car and train are examples of the first. Broadband fits as well: it was obvious that if you could make the internet faster, the online world would beat a path to your door.And much as hate to praise any other animal, the mouse is another good example. When your silly daughter was put in front a computer when she was three, you didn’t have to tell her what to. Very few inventions are truly intuitive, but the mouse is definitely one of them.”

What about implausible things that didn’t work? “Oh, rowing boats that could take you to the moon, that sort of thing” she said. “It’s much more interesting to see the implausible things that have worked, and the plausible ones that haven’t. That’s where the lessons are.”

“Do you remember you wrote a piece in about 1998 saying that text messaging would never take off?” she continued. I sniffed a rose without enthusiasm. “You wanted to know why anyone would want to wear their fingers out punching at tiny keys. How many text messages do you send a week now?” I found another rose and stared hard at it. “There are all sorts of sociological reasons as well but I’m a dog so I don’t know about those.”

“What about things that should have worked but didn’t?” I asked. “They’re the things that market research would tell you would work,” she replied. “They are superficially attractive, but when you look at whether they make life easier or have any appeal they turn out to be rubbish. They are also the things in old comic strips set in the future, like Dan Dare: hover cars, television watches, videophones.” I looked up: “Videophones?”

“I may be making one of your text message type mistakes,” she said, “but I just don’t see why people would want to see each other while talking.That, and they’ve always had them on Star Trek – that must mean they’ll fail.”

“So where does this leave the web?” I asked. “It’s sort of in the middle,” the dog said, “Or rather, it has bits that go in all four squares.” She scratched the plausible, works square. “Pornography, Amazon and airlines go here: they use the web’s interactivity, ability to store huge amounts of data, secure payment and, in the case of porn, multimedia. They couldn’t fail.”

“In the implausible and doesn’t work box, are things which are just too subtle and personal for the web’s data-driven approach: how would you sell high fashion online?

“Plausible but doesn’t work includes political parties and advertising agencies. Politicians love soundbites, and the web doesn’t do soundbites; also, you can’t shove a web page in someone’s face as you can a poster. Ad agencies – well what exactly would they say on a website?Much better to it face to face. Then there are almost all brand sites – the only ones that work are those that get a sort of cult following. But no-one would dare suggest that any of these should stop using the web. Actually I would – but I’d just be given a bone and told to shut up.”

What about the last group – implausible schemes that work. “What about eBay – who would have thought millions of people would want to auction Beanie Babies to each other? School reunion sites – apart from anything else, where would the revenue come from? Thank heaven for investors in the dotcom boom who threw away millions so we could see what works.”

“So what you’re saying is that the web is so complex that the only thing we can do is to try things out and see if they work?”

“Exactly, and for heavens sake don’t try any market research. It won’t tell you anything.”

“OK. Final question – will the web and television merge into one?” “How do I know?” she said. “I’m only a dog.”

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs Co (www.bowencraggs.com)

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