Archive for June, 2007|Monthly archive page

Fundamental Forces of the Internet

Lately I’ve been thinking about the common motivations behind all internet usage. I’m trying to design a taxonomy – the “fundamental forces” if you will, of internet usage motivation.

All internet services cater to one or more of the following core motivations:

  • Communication
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Self-expression
  • Utility

Communication

This is the original use for the internet, pre-dating the web. Email, instant messaging, site mail, forums, right up through twitter. Communication is still one of the most compelling motivations around.

Education

I mean education in a broad sense – gathering information. From maps to weather to news, technical articles and specs, product review sites, and informational blogs. A big reason people go online every day is to learn something.

Entertainment

Arguably the biggest driver overall for internet usage. Don’t believe me? Try games + porn + YouTube. That’s a pretty big chunk of activity! Obviously entertainment is a big aspect of lots of services even where that is not the service’s primary function.

Self-expression

This is perhaps the newest core-motivation to drive people online. But it’s growing every day. The ability for people to express themselves online (from commenting on a video to writing a blog to building your Second Life avatar) is a core motivation behind many of today’s most popular sites.

Utility

This is a bit of a catch-all, capturing all the services that just help you get some job done. Utilities range from finding stuff (Google) to buying stuff (Amazon) to replacing desktop apps (Google Docs).

I would argue that every web site and online service can be classified by which of these motivations it primarily and secondarily serves:

Communication – Gmail, Meebo, Skype, Twitter, Yahoo Groups, Flickr

Education – Wikipedia, Yahoo Portal, BBC, Scribd, Google Maps, Digg

Entertainment – Online gaming, porn, YouTube

Self-expression – Myspace, Facebook, YouTube, WordPress, Flickr

Utility – Google, Amazon, eBay, Craigslist

Many of the most popular and sticky services combine multiple motivations. YouTube combines self-expression and entertainment. Myspace and Facebook combine self-expression and communication. This is great if you can achieve it, but I suspect that newer sites need to focus on a single motivation. At vodpod.com the clear dominant motivation for our users is self-expression. People come to us to build a collection of their favorite videos. Entertainment (watching videos) is very much a secondary motivation. although we hope to grow its importance over time.

When you’re building your service or designing a new one, I recommend considering how your service maps to this taxonomy of motivation. Are you trying to serve too many different motivations? Consider: why do people prefer Google search to Yahoo search? One big reason is that Google search exists as a single-purpose utility, while Yahoo search is mixed in with entertainment. Clearly defining the motivations of your users is key to building the features you need, and eliminating the features you don’t.

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