fancy meeting you here

The web isn’t made of tubes but it is made of people. It may sound corny but it’s worth repeating: the web is people.

In other words, what makes the web unique and distinct from, say, television, magazines or mobile phones, is that the web connects tremendous numbers of people to one another, quickly and cheaply. (By contrast, television allows only a small group of people to reach a large number of people, magazines do the same but in smaller numbers, and, as for telephones, it’s both expensive and difficult to conduct a meaningful conference call between 100 strangers, let alone one hundred million.)

What the web adds, then, is lots of people talking directly to one another. Hence, YouTube = videos + people talking to one another. MySpace = music + people talking to one another. Facebook, Twitter, blogs = lots of people talking to one another in new ways.

For that reason, it would be a shame if the next generation of web browsers – those that skim the web for select types of content – neglected to include what people are saying to one another. I’m thinking of both the Roku set-top box and the free software Boxee, both of which are browsers for navigating video content.

The Roku box ($100) allows me to play some of the movies in my Netflix queue on my television. However, it does not allow me to browse the Netflix web site in order to “check out” additional titles, nor does it let me read reviews of videos written by other viewers.

Boxee (free) allows me to watch videos that are stored on my computer and, more importantly, videos that are hosted on web sites like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu. It too filters out the comments and reviews left by viewers on web sites like Netflix and Hulu (though it’s possible this blocking may be, in part, the work of the sites themselves.)

Instead, Boxee, which bills itself a “social media center,” would like me to invite and then follow my friends’ viewing habits on its service. Only, that’s not social activity – that’s an echo chamber.

We watch movies in public theaters not just because the screens are bigger and the noises louder but because audiences amplify the signal being transmitted by the projector. (We watch sports in bars for much of the same reasons.) Even the most puritanical film fans will come together at festivals, seeking out each other’s presence before and after the screenings (if not during.)

You can learn a great deal from strangers, especially those who seek out the same entertainment as you. I would venture that strangers have the most to teach us about that which we think we already know.