Reduce human complexity to its essentials, and I think humans are motivated by three desires: being useful, collecting stuff and telling each other stories. The Internet’s astonishing trajectory is due in no small part to the fact that, uniquely among all media, it has become a vehicle for satisfying all three of these desires. To wit:
Being useful: Back in the early 1990s, netizens enthusiastically described the Internet as an “economy of gifts”, a place where strangers eagerly helped others with no reward other than the satisfaction of being useful. Well, we may have forgotten the “economy of gifts” phrase, but the Internet is more of a gift economy than ever, in which people contribute entries to Wikipedia, offer endless advice on myriad discussion groups from Yahoo to Google, and send endless email streams about supporting one cause or another.
Collecting stuff: This explains eBay, Amazon, Alibris, vintage Barbie sites and just about every commerce site on the web, plus all the collector discussion groups on Yahoo. Of course more is being collected than physical objects; people collect virtual stuff as well, from reputation points on eBay to virtual clothing and furnishings on Second Life. so long after our garages and storage containers are stuffed to the top with stuff, we’ll happily keep collecting.
Telling stories: Ever since the first human told the first story around the first campfire, we have been obsessed with storytelling. Blogging is but the latest in a long line of story-telling media, and the new digital fire circles are sites like MySpace, Flickr, and any of countless other social sites. Luckily, the magic of digital technology allows the teller to prattle on endlessly without forcing anyone to actually listen. Eventually, I suspect that an early use of artificially intelligent software agents will be as attentive listeners to human story-tellers.
Of course these three motivations are synergistic, and smoe of the most compellling parts of the web are places where one can do all three. But though the desires are ancient, we have only just begun to fulfill them in the digital domain. As the Internet continues to grow and evolve, expect myriad surprises in the form of new digital satisfactions.