In a network it is the connection we make between things that is often more important than the thing itself.
“Once upon a time in the 1960s, scientists thought the human genome might contain as many as 2 million genes, units of DNA that code for proteins,” Douglas Main wrote for Popular Science in 2014. “But ever since then, the estimated number has been steadily shrinking. A new study suggests that the human genome could contain as few as 19,000 protein-coding genes, fewer than nematode worms.”
This is a classic example of how the human mind works. We are humans. We are much better looking than worms, so surely we must have more genes. Because for us humans worth and value is very much wrapped up in the fact that we have more than others. Often, it doesn’t matter what it is — we just want more of it. We are a society that produces things, that owns things, and wants more things; whether that be DNA, houses, cattle, cars, webpages or apps. We must have an app, the organization says, because I app therefore I am.
When scientists started out mapping human genes, they had already mapped more primitive species, and they automatically assumed that we would have many, many more genes. Year after year they were forced to reduce the total estimate. It was depressing; very hard on the ego.
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What scientists realized is that it’s not about the quantity of genes but rather about their quality. It’s also about the connections between genes. To be ‘primitive’ is to lack connections. It is appropriate linking — the building of bridges between genes — that allows for complex and sophisticated life to emerge.
Most websites, if left without management, will grow — not in links — but rather in pages, in content, in apps. Most web teams see linking as a kind of afterthought. Navigation links are rarely designed seriously and rigorously. They are essentially thrown up there after a bit of discussion. And if they don’t work well, then more navigation is added on top without any real thinking about how this navigation interacts with what is already there. Consequently, poor quality links are the number one reason people fail to complete their tasks online.
Much of the way we have been educated ensures that we will focus on the wrong things when trying to make our websites and apps successful. The impulse is to add more to them because deep down we feel that the more pages or features we have, the more sophisticated we must be. But in a network it is often the opposite. Not only does more often not add value, it can destroy it. If you have one high quality link on a page and 10 poor quality ones, the 10 poor ones draw valuable attention away from the one useful link.
Chaos on the web is uncontrolled publishing, uncontrolled growth, uncontrolled production of features and things and stuff. We must move to a work culture that focuses as much on the maintenance and improvement of what we already have, as on the production of new stuff. But more importantly, we must develop our skills of linking and bridge building. Because in a network, that’s where the real value lies.