There are two essential concepts of location for the World Wide Web. One is you: the individual, the reader, the writer, the customer, the singular entity. The other is the World.
I live and work mostly in the U.S. I also speak English. My French, German and Spanish are all too minimal to count unless I happen to be in a country that speaks one of those languages. When I’m in one of those places, as I am now in France, I do my best to learn as much of the language as I can. But I’m still basically an English speaker.
So, by default, when I’m on the Web my language is English. My location might be France, or Denmark or somewhere else, but when I’m searching for something the language I require most of the time is English. That’s my mental location.
So it drives me nuts that Google sends me to http://google.fr, even when I log into iGoogle and get my personalized Google index page. When I re-write the URL so it says http://google.us, Google re-writes it as http://google.fr, no matter what. On iGoogle I can’t find a way to set my preferred language, or my virtual location if it’s not where I am right now. I can’t do that even when I have Google translate, instantly, in my Google Chrome browser, the page text to English. (I’m sure there’s a hack, and I would appreciate it if somebody would tell me. But if there is why should it be so hard?)
Bing comes up all-French too, but at the bottom of the page, in small white type, it says “Go to Bing in English”. Nice.
So now, here in Paris, I’m using Bing when I want to search in English, and Google when I want to search for local stuff. Which is a lot, actually. But I miss searching in English on Google. I could ask them to fix that, but I’d rather fix the fact that only they can fix that. Depending on suppliers to do all the work is a bug, not a feature.
What matters is context. I’m tired of having companies guess at what my context is. I know what my contexts are. I know how they change. I want my own ways of changing contexts, and of informing services of what those contexts are. In some cases I don’t mind their guessing. In a few I even appreciate it. But in too many cases their guesses only get in the way. The Google search case is just one of them.
Phil Windley (disclosure: I’ve done work for Phil) gives a talk in which he provides a brief history of e-commerce. It goes, “1995: Invention of the cookie. The End.” Thanks to the cookie, we have contexts — but only inside each company’s silo. We can’t provide our own contexts except to the degree that each company’s website allows it. And they’re all different. This too is a bug, not a feature. (Just like carrying around a pile of loyalty cards and key tabs is a bug. Hey, I know more about who and what I’m loyal to than any company does — and I’d like my own ways of expressing that.)
At this moment it is commonly believed that the contexts that matter most are “social”. This is defined as who my friends are, and where I happen to be right now. This information is held almost entirely by commercial services: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Foursquare, Groupon, Blippy and so on. Not by you or me. Not by individuals, and not independently of all those services. This too is a bug. Who your friends and other contacts are is indeed a context, but it should be one that you control, not some company. Your data, and how you organize it, should be the independent variable, and the data you share with these services should be the dependent variables.
Some of us in the VRM community (including Phil and his company, Kynetx) are working on context provided by individuals. In the long run these contexts can work for any or all commercial and non-commercial institutions we deal with. I expect to see some of this work become manifest over the next year. Stay tuned.