Don't Search, Just Absorb: The Dawn of the Couch Potato Web

A world where we're surrounded by alerts -- everywhere, anyplace, anytime -- suggesting ideas for what we might want to do or buy next. Sure sounds a lot like advertising, doesn't it?
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These days, I don't find places to eat. They find me. My web searches for new neighborhood joints -- "best brunch Flatiron NYC," "café East Village" -- have given way to Foursquare insta-alerts that pop up on my phone to tell me there's a nice place nearby. Thanks to the app's "List" feature, which allows me to subscribe to lists of must-try destinations compiled by friends and city guides, Foursquare lets me know whenever I'm close to a restaurant that has scored an endorsement. Hunting and gathering online for ideas about where to get my next meal -- or outfit, or book, or playlist, for that matter -- has given way to sitting back and being served up snack-sized morsels of information. I'm not seeking. I'm absorbing. Our process for finding new information looks a lot less like a home-cooked casserole we've whipped up from ingredients cobbled together from the deli, Farmer's Market and back of the fridge, and a whole lot more like a drive-through meal. Quick, easy and slick, with just a hint of industrial perfection. Thanks to our expanding online social networks and always-on smartphones, search is being displaced by "discovery," Silicon Valley's favorite new buzzword describing the way technology delivers a personalized selection of anything from songs to soulmates without an explicit request by the seeker. "The implicit searching on your behalf -- without you initiating it via a query -- is absolutely where we're going," said Stefan Weitz, director of Bing, Microsoft's search engine. "Today the trigger is 'keyword' plus 'enter.' But tomorrow the trigger event could be you woke up and it's 8 a.m. and the train [you were supposed to take] is not functioning." Say hello to the couch potato web. We're transitioning from searching for ideas to having them spoon-fed to us. Facebook's "frictionless sharing" apps put new music right in front of you, no combing blogs or scouring the web required. Looking for fashion tips, a recipe for this weekend's cocktail party, or ideas for bridal bouquets? Don't bother sorting through scammy links on Google. Hop on Pinterest, where the site's users have curated the best inspiration for you, minimal clicks (and zero typing) necessary. If you're new to a city, you needn't even stalk Facebook for potential friends. Apps like Highlight, and Kismet, which sync with your social network and location, will instantly tell you when like-minded friends or friends-of-Facebook-friends are close by. For years, Facebook, Google and other web giants have been pushing a personalized Internet, where what we see is tailor-made according to who our friends are, what videos we watch, where we live, what we click on or how we like to spend our money.

But those attempts to help us "discover" new ideas are increasingly moving beyond an assortment of links on a page, and into the world around us. The technology isn't just customizing the Internet anymore, but bleeding beyond the borders of the screen to craft our offline experiences. Mobile devices tell us more about the people and places around us than we ever knew. It's easy enough to tune out a phone vibrating in your pocket. Now imagine wearing Google Glasses and seeing a constant stream of suggestions for things to eat or buy in your direct line of vision. Not only could those recommendations tap deep into your personal habits, thanks to all of the data available about your life and location, but they'd be near impossible to ignore. The tilt toward services that discover for us, rather than making us look on our own, will continue, to the point where we'll be told what we want before we know we need it. Especially if Google has its way. "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next." A world where we're surrounded by alerts -- everywhere, anyplace, anytime -- suggesting ideas for what we might want to do or buy next. Sure sounds a lot like advertising, doesn't it? The wizards of discovery would counter that they're helping us by showing us things we never knew we'd love. They're expanding our universe and introducing us to wonderful things without extra effort on our behalf. In truth, it's not just the user who's being helped: It's the brand. Facebook's frictionless sharing apps, for example, introduce users to new albums, articles and outfits, which in turn gets us to buy more songs, spend more time on media sites and shop more frequently. The convenience of information delivered to us, without active agency of our own besides our membership to a social network or shopping service, raises the question of how intimately this convenience is tied with consumerism, and whether this technology will fuel our curiosity, or just our consumption. It can already be off-putting to have Foursquare vibrating in my pocket with bar recommendations while I'm walking to work at 8 a.m., or pinging me with restaurants right after a big meal. I've never thought about food as much as I have in the months after Foursquare's "List" feature was introduced. Apparently I'm extremely vulnerable to suggestion, especially when it's constant and customized. Done right, however, these discovery engines could also help inject serendipity back into a filtered web that some, like Upworthy chief executive Eli Pariser, argue is showing us too much of what we want to see, and not enough of what we need to see. But we're not there yet. "The line between random serendipity and guided serendipity is very fuzzy," notes Mark Johnson, CEO of Zite, a personalized news reader app. "It's difficult to tell whether it's random shit, or stuff you care about."

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