Tuesday, January 19

In a world hungry for information, content is king


IF you are reading this column right now online on your PC, your iPad, or smartphone, you may not fully realise that prior to 1989 all this was simply science fiction. It was only as recently as 31 years ago that a British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for the world wide web.

Five years later in 1994, a team led by John Davis of The Hotel Industry Switch Company created the world’s very first catalogue (and later a booking system) of hotel properties. Jeff Greenwald had then written the first travel blog and posted an article called ‘One Hundred Seconds of Solitude’.

A year later in 1995, Internet Travel Network (ITN) claimed to have overseen the very first airline ticket booking over the web – a company called Viator Systems then launched a platform to book destination tours and vacations. Another company, Lonely Planet, took its first entry into online publishing of travel guides – which quickly spawned a multitude of copycats.

The following year, 1996, was the breakthrough and landmark year when it had all happened.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin had developed a search algorithm called BackRub when they were students at Sandford University in California; it was launched as Google in 1998 and it started a new way to catalogue everything on the web with a powerful search machine – today it is the world’s most widely used search engine and has made multi-billionaires of its two creators who are still at the helm.

During the same year Microsoft created Expedia – an online platform to tackle the brand new surge of consumer interest in both leisure and corporate travel – many imitators quickly followed and a multitude of brands quickly seized the moment. Travel providers quickly spent untold billions on advertising their services – new low cost carrier airlines EasyJet and Ryanair quickly entered the European market and heavily promoted their websites to book flights online. As they say the rest is history.

Another turning point came in the year 2000 – a local business operating above a humble pizza parlour named Kosta’s in Needham, Massachusetts launched TripAdvisor and it quickly revolutionised the hotel industry and boosted travel destinations and tourist attractions all over the world.

What did all this development have in common, one might ask?

Content! For without this major attribute, it all comes to nought.

What precisely then is this content business?

Content is anything and everything that has to do with what you are reading right now, to you seeking for information, advice, news, opinions, comments – to searching on the net for what sparks your interest to what you need from whatever source, authority, or organisation.

Content is there from the moment you wake up till you close your eyes to sleep every night, especially if you are, like me, in the habit of checking your smartphone for messages, emails, WhatsApp or WeChat texts; to looking up the latest YouTube DIY video; to seeking news on world events; to checking the weather, the stock market, and whatever else you can think of.

Nowadays no one goes to the travel agent in his brick and mortar office, to the airport, train station, or ferry point to seek information and to book a ticket to go anywhere. No one reads through a hardcopy travel brochure to obtain destination information or seek cookbooks for a favourite recipe. Even fewer numbers of us ever visit a theatre, cinema, museum, or a fair in recent times.

Everything that we need has gone online. All that everything is content.

As with almost anything, there are pros and cons to this new normal – the new environment whereby we depend so much on what we glean online about anything that we seek or want.

Firstly, you can’t experience it for yourself first hand. You are highly dependent on the other person’s point of view and if that view is skewered in any way, you are only getting half or even less of whatever entire whole information you are looking for. People who write reviews, or opinions, or advice and suggestions, especially on medical matters or in travel guides like TripAdvisor will always be prejudiced and have their own personal bias and no matter how independent or neutral they might try or want to be, the reader will always have to give the benefit of the doubt on reviews that may tend to be overly-enthusiastic or extremely negative. After all these reviews are just that – their own personal opinions, maybe tinted, coloured, and characterised by their own past experiences both good and bad.

When seeking advice or recommendations of any sort online, and especially if it’s reviews on places to see, to eat, be entertained, and to stay; as well as films to watch, music to listen to, and books to read – one must always be extremely cautious and sceptical, and put oneself first in the shoes of the person writing the review. It’s always good to have some knowledge and information of who the reviewer is and his background, and even better if its someone you’ve been following regularly and have found that most of the time he can be trusted to give a fair and reasonable opinion. There are also ulterior motives and vested interests at work with many reviewers, so just be more aware and tread softly with these words of recommendation.

However, the beauty of the internet is that you can and are able to get all sorts of opinions from every different angle, every inclination, every slant, political, religious, sexual, and psychological point of view. So on the cons side confusion reigns if you’re not discerning enough.

There’s a personal experience I’d like to conclude with here. I have a German friend who was there at the start of it all. As a matter of record, he was an early pioneer of the online travel booking business and had set up a very successful company in Europe just at the beginning of the boom – but he very quickly sold it off and made a small fortune. When I had first met him over 15 years ago, he told me then that the future of the internet is in providing it with content. His exact words to me then, which still ring in my ears today, “Content is king. Without it the internet is nothing and nobody would use it other than for emails and to play games online!”

Over the years, he has had his ups and downs, and made some money off the internet, but eventually gave it up for reasons of his own. As for myself, one of my biggest regrets was that I had never thought of learning how to write code for computer programmes and getting more involved with supplying content to the internet. However, in a very small way I have somewhat fulfilled a part of his sagely advice – today for the past two and a half years, I have been writing my weekly column to bring some personal experience content to fill the newspaper pages of this daily, available to you both in hardcopy and online.

Rudi Weissmann, my friend, thanks for that sage advice you gave me all those many years ago, but that’s all now just water under the bridge.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected]