Someone I know once referred to the state reached by shopping at Target as the “Target Fugue State.” You go in there to buy a dishpan. While in the dishpan row, you realize you needed some measuring cups. The endcap reminds you that you needed some dish towels, which brings to mind the fact that you needed some bath towels for your guest bathroom. By the time you’ve left the store you’ve got 20 items, which you ended up grabbing because Target spends tons of time and money figuring out how to lay out their stores to create *exactly* this effect.
One of the things about browsing through information on the internet is that really, all you can do is search. There are hyperlinks here and there but they have no context. Truthfully, the internet is much closer to a dump truck than a series of tubes – a pile of URLs describing a massive number of information blobs. Companies like Yahoo! have tried to impose some structure, but it’s clumsy and incomplete because it’s created by humans who look for things and then categorize them appropriately. From any information bit you can’t really poke up your head and look around and figure out what is “near” you in the information space.
As a result, when we move about on the internet mostly we use search to find reasonable possibilities, and filter with our brains to narrow the results and find the thing we were looking for. The tools available out there don’t help much with true “browsing” in any meaningful way.
If we find ways to impose graph database philosophy on the internet, it would be possible to feel like there were “neighborhoods” in which sites or pages (or other data) lived, and then look around to see what other things were nearby. If a commercial site could actually create a Target Fugue state on the internet, it would make for an enormous improvement in the user experience.
Amazon is currently the site that does the best job trying to emulate this, with “people who bought this also bought” and “based on your purchases I think you want” but it still feels forced. When I go into a bookstore, I love to wander up and down the aisles and just look at what attracts my eye. Although Amazon has ‘browse’ as a choice I don’t really feel like I’m browsing. I feel like I’m narrowing my search, and it doesn’t at all have the same feel as wandering around in a bookstore feeling my way through the stock.
I don’t have any answers to this, but I’m hoping that building applications on top of a graphical database such as Freebase will make it easier to create that state. It’s a hard problem, but that’s the kind I like best.