Two eras of the internet: pull and push

The evolution of the internet is an extremely complex topic. Sometimes it is helpful to find broad patterns that make it easier to understand. One simplifying pattern comes from the two types of actions internet users take: pull and push.

Pull                                           Push

dominant platform                            Search                                       Social

dominant platform company            Google                                      Facebook

growth era                                        2000s                                          2010s

successful content type                    Utilities                                        Media

content durability                              Stock                                            Flow

successful publishers             TripAdvisor, Wikipedia,                            tbd

Yelp, & many more

marketing activity                     links and algorithms                   shares and people

Pull is when you are seeking information, usually an answer to a question. You want to know the closing time of a restaurant, the description of a hotel where you are thinking about staying, the details of an historical event you heard about, etc. You go to your computer and pull the information. The killer app for pulling information was Google.

Search grew exponentially in its heyday (roughly, the decade of the 2000s) because it benefited from a positive feedback loop between the supply of and the demand for information. As search demand grew, websites developed content to meet that demand, which in turn further stoked demand.  The successful websites of this era were mostly information utilities such as Wikipedia, Yelp, and TripAdvisor.

Push is when you are using the internet in a more passive way and content comes to you. The killer app for push is social networks, the most popular being Facebook. Information is pushed from user to user via likes, shares, tweets, etc. People tend to push things they find funny, interesting, moving, outrageous, etc which usually means they push media: articles, videos, lists, gifs, photos, etc.

We are currently experiencing a positive feedback loop between social networks and media publishers, analogous to last decade’s search + information feedback loop. There are a few other key differences today:

1) Desktop vs mobile. The current era has an additional dimension of complexity due to a simultaneous transition from desktop to mobile computing. Consequences include the rapid rise of native apps over websites, and a dramatic increase in the overall scale and reach of the internet.

2) Stock vs flow: Media tends to have a much shorter shelf life than informational content. The main defensible asset for last decade’s publishers was the repository of content they accumulated. The defensible asset for media publishers is the machine – the combination of people, technology, practices, financial and other assets – that produces a constant flow content.

3) Bundled vs unbundled monetization - In the prior era, monetization usually meant placing ads on websites next to content. In the new era, atomized chunks of content are pushed through social networks and consumed on mobile phones. The most successful ads are funny, interesting, engaging, compelling, etc. on their own (so-called native ads) and don’t rely on bundling.

There will probably be a few big, successful companies that emerge from the push era. As in the pull era, the successful companies will reinforce the feedback loop: riding the trends instead of fighting them.