Friction

Written byJohn Allsopp. 4 comments

John Allsopp

John is a co-founder of the Web Directions conference series and Scroll magazine, and author of one of the earliest books on Microformats. As a software developer, long standing web development speaker and writer, he’s spent the last 15 years working with and developing for the web.

Is the web really the deathknell of print? With its ability to augment, to manage risk, and reduce friction, it might just be its renaissance.

You’re read­ing this arti­cle, whether online, or on the phys­i­cal page, because of the mag­a­zineScroll (it appears in the very first issue of Scroll). ButScroll only exists because of a con­fer­ence series, Web Direc­tions, evolv­ing as it did out of the printed pro­grams for these con­fer­ences. But the chain of cau­sa­tion doesn’t stop there.

Web Direc­tions began in Aus­tralia. Peo­ple out­side Aus­tralia might not real­ize that the coun­try is geo­graph­i­cally very large (almost iden­ti­cal in size to the con­tigu­ous US), with a rel­a­tively tiny pop­u­la­tion (roughly the same as that of New York State). It’s also geo­graph­i­cally highly iso­lated. The near­est coun­try, New Zealand, is 3 or more hours from the main pop­u­la­tion cen­tres, while South East Asian coun­tries are 8 to 10 fly­ing hours away. So an Aus­tralian con­fer­ence must attract atten­dees from across a huge geo­graph­i­cal space.

In 2000, only 4 years before our first con­fer­ence, a return air­fare from Syd­ney to Mel­bourne (about the dis­tance of Los Ange­les to San Fran­cisco) that did not include a Sat­ur­day night stop over cost in the order of $1,000. Air­fares had to be booked in per­son at travel agen­cies. Infor­ma­tion about prices, itin­er­aries and ticket con­di­tions were only avail­able through travel agen­cies. Changes to travel once booked were costly and time con­sum­ing. Cou­ple this with the asso­ci­ated cost and incon­ve­nience of orga­niz­ing accom­mo­da­tion, and the like­li­hood of some­one trav­el­ing even as short a dis­tance as from Mel­bourne to Syd­ney to attend a grass roots con­fer­ence was small. At best, any Aus­tralian con­fer­ence of this nature could rely only on city level audience.

In 2008, you can fly return from Syd­ney to Mel­bourne for as lit­tle as $160. You can book months in advance, or hours before you fly, and do so any­where you have an inter­net con­nec­tion. Itin­er­ary changes are sim­ple and self ser­vice, and rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive. Infor­ma­tion about pric­ing and con­di­tions is trans­par­ent, and avail­able directly and eas­ily from the airlines.

In 4 short years, it became fea­si­ble to hold a con­fer­ence like Web Direc­tions, because the size of the mar­ket grew 300%, sim­ply with the increase of the geo­graph­i­cal catch­ment area from Syd­ney, to the whole of Aus­tralia and beyond. What hap­pened in those years? In one sense the answer seems banal: the web became a cen­tral part of the way peo­ple con­ducted all kinds of com­merce. But the web didn’t sim­ply make exist­ing busi­nesses more effi­cient, allow­ing them to pass on their cost sav­ings to their cus­tomers. Crit­i­cally, it enabled new kinds of busi­nesses, and new ways of doing busi­ness in even very estab­lished industries.

It’s hard to imag­ine that Tim Berners-​​lee would have envi­sioned that his World Wide Web project in 1990 would lit­tle more than a decade later change avi­a­tion, and many other indus­tries. John Ross’s expres­sion “the law of unin­tended con­se­quences” seems to cap­ture these devel­op­ments perfectly.

A Law of the Web’s Unin­tended Consequences?

Do the con­se­quences of the web have a dis­cernible pat­tern? Can we under­stand and pre­dict how the web will wring such changes into the future? Can we even take advan­tage of these patterns?

In think­ing about the role of the web in the ori­gins ofScroll, it seems to me that at numer­ous points the web reduced friction.

Think of the cost, and effort, in arrang­ing travel and trans­porta­tion to the event as a huge source of fric­tion, lim­it­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who’d go to the trou­ble to attend.

Imag­ine, for a new air­line, the cost and effort of devel­op­ing a “dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nel” (travel agen­cies, and cor­po­rate accounts) as huge sources of fric­tion imped­ing their growth. The web helped air­lines (in the way it has a huge range of other indus­tries and pro­fes­sions) reach a far larger audi­ence with far less cost.

For the trav­eller, the web reduced the incon­ve­nience of mak­ing the trip to a travel agency, wait­ing, the nag­ging doubt that you weren’t really get­ting all the infor­ma­tion you required unfil­tered. All these are sources of fric­tion imped­ing a poten­tial trav­eller at each step from ulti­mately mak­ing the deci­sion to fly.

Make it Virtual”

In the “web 2.0″ world, the instinct of so many entre­pre­neurs, pun­dits, blog­gers and bull artists is, to recast Ezra Pound’s exhor­ta­tion to the mod­ernists, “make it vir­tual”. Rarely do we stop to ques­tion the assump­tion under­ly­ing this — that some­thing online is always bet­ter per se. But if we return to air travel and con­fer­ences, there is some­thing about their phys­i­cal nature that is intrin­sic to them. The web has aug­mented, or improved, rather than replaced them.

Our exhor­ta­tion then should be not “make it vir­tual” but “make it bet­ter”. And to me it’s the inter­weav­ing of the real and “cyber­space”, rather then the replace­ment of the one with the other which offers the great­est oppor­tu­nity for the web to improve our lives.

Let’s return toScroll, which (fig­u­ra­tively, or lit­er­ally) you have in your hands right now. In the age of the instant, low cost, online world of blogs, where every form of tra­di­tional media is scram­bling to get online, why on earth would any­one print a mag­a­zine? One rea­son Joe Clark cap­tures so well in his essay “Unread­able” in these very pages. For many kinds of read­ing, and many con­texts in which we read, it’s hard to imag­ine a purely elec­tronic expe­ri­ence replac­ing the tac­tile, rich, sen­su­ous expe­ri­ence of the printed word.

But how might the web “aug­ment” tra­di­tional ways of read­ing? At the end of this arti­cle you’ll find a URL. Fol­low it, and you’ll find notes, links to ideas, peo­ple and works explic­itly and implic­itly referred to in that arti­cle. The fric­tion involved in look­ing up a word or phrase, learn­ing more about Ezra Pound, is dra­mat­i­cally reduced, because the authors and edi­tors have done a lot of the work for you. You’ll also be able to see how other read­ers have responded, and add your voice to that con­ver­sa­tion. Read­ing has tra­di­tion­ally been a largely indi­vid­u­al­is­tic expe­ri­ence. The web can aug­ment it by mak­ing it more social, by reduc­ing the effort, the fric­tion, involved in con­nect­ing with peo­ple who share your interests.

But even then, sim­ply typ­ing a url into a device like a web enabled mobile phone (which increas­ingly we’ll all have with us almost all of the time) is a source of fric­tion — it’s frus­trat­ing and time con­sum­ing. So, at the foot of every arti­cle you’ll find a sema­code (a two dimen­sional bar­code) that encodes the URL for this arti­cle atScroll’s web site. Many mobile phones are already equipped to use these — just take a photo of the sema­code, and your phone will open the encoded URL in its browser.

Dis­solv­ing capital

The risk of upfront cap­i­tal expen­di­ture is a huge imped­i­ment to any busi­ness ven­ture. In the world of print, an enor­mous risk is the cost of print­ing. There are sig­nif­i­cant start up costs, and then unit costs that even with runs of thou­sands, will typ­i­cally be many dol­lars per unit. Even if you don’t pay writ­ers, design­ers, edi­tors and so on, to even ship a sin­gle copy of a sin­gle issue requires the upfront invest­ment of thou­sands or tens of thou­sands of dol­lars. How can the web address this enor­mous source of fric­tion in the print pub­lish­ing industries?

Scroll is avail­able via the print on demand ser­vice of Mag­Cloud. There are no setup costs, and a fixed cost per unit, that the pur­chaser pays when they buy a copy of the mag­a­zine. The web dis­solves the need for a very sig­nif­i­cant part of the cap­i­tal required to start such a ven­ture. But with print on demand not only is this imped­i­ment removed, but so too the fric­tion of tra­di­tional dis­tri­b­u­tion bot­tle­necks (only a lim­ited num­ber of books or mag­a­zine titles will appear on the shelves of book­stores and newsagents).

Rather than being the long expected deathknell for print, the web, by facil­i­tat­ing print on demand, may well drive a renais­sance for print, by mak­ing the cost of pro­duc­tion dra­mat­i­cally lower, by reduc­ing the finan­cial risk of exper­i­ment­ing with print pub­li­ca­tion significantly.

I sus­pect (and hope) such appar­ent ironies will abound in the com­ing years, as we increas­ingly under­stand how the web trans­forms and aug­ments, rather than destroys and replaces. By look­ing at busi­nesses, indus­tries, processes, media, and the way we com­mu­ni­cate, and seek­ing out the points of fric­tion, which impede deci­sion mak­ing, the abil­ity to deliver a prod­uct or ser­vice, or even under­mine the very fea­si­bil­ity of an enter­prise, and then ask­ing how the web might reduce or remove this fric­tion, I’m cer­tain we’ll see the trans­for­ma­tion for the bet­ter of every­thing from the polit­i­cal process to the “price of tea in china”.

And I hope, and have every faith that the fear and mis­un­der­stand­ing of the web that dri­ves many strange, futile and frus­trat­ing deci­sions among law mak­ers and busi­ness lead­ers around the world comes to be replaced by the same sense of excite­ment, opti­mism, and oppor­tu­nity that we who come to be involved pro­fes­sion­ally with the web share.

Further Reading

1 back to overview

Comments on this article

  1. Written byJosh on the 2nd of February

    You men­tioned Scoll Mag­a­zine uses Mag­Cloud to offer POD sub­scrip­tions. Does the CMS export the con­tent to InDe­sign for print page lay­out? Is this auto­mated in any­way. Can it be struc­tured to oper­ate in reverse? Print to web?

    I’d love to learn more and con­tinue this dis­cus­sion. Great article.

    Email:
    josh­maxru­bin­stein (at) gmail

  2. Written byGuy Leech on the 3rd of February

    Josh, it’s not auto­mated at all. The print design is done ini­tially, and all the con­tent finalised and so on, and then I man­u­ally copied the con­tent from the printed doc­u­ment into Word­Press (which runs this site), and there you go.

    Ide­ally an auto­mated print-​​to-​​web or visa versa ser­vice would be used, but that would get fairly com­plex (I imag­ine), and at this stage we don’t really have much need for it. If we start print­ing a new Scroll every week then I’d take a look at it, but for now it’s just my mouse.

  3. Written byMike on the 22nd of December

    I agree that the web reduces fric­tion, if you choose to look at it that way. I read your arti­cle with the expec­ta­tion that you were going to arrive at some con­clu­sion with respect to where we can go from here to take advan­tage of the sit­u­a­tion. Instead your arti­cle ended with no spe­cific game plan, but a gen­eral opti­mism — kind of like when the Berlin wall came down.

    And I agree. But where do we go from here? My sense is that it is more than just a reduc­tion of fric­tion, and that what is avail­able to peo­ple even in the remotest cor­ners of the globe is some­thing we haven’t quite yet grasped. I think there is some­thing really huge lurk­ing below the sur­face. I don’t know what it is, but I always dream of how nice it would be to be the first to dis­cover it.

  4. Written byDarrell on the 17th of August

    Where did you obtain the tips to pub­lish ““Scroll Mag­a­zine | Fric­tion by
    John All­sopp”? Thank you –Vincent

Leave a comment

Don't forget to keep track of further comments too!