AOL’s digital prophet David Shing – ‘It’s time to build a new kind of web’

22 Feb 2013

Pictured: David Shing in Dublin this week

AOL’s engineers are hard at work building the template for a new kind of internet experience with Big Data at its heart that the company’s digital prophet David Shing says will help suit the need states of internet users.

Shing was in Dublin this week to visit the company’s Dublin operations where over 155 people are employed to develop the systems to enable AOL’s content management systems and future media platforms. In recent months the company announced plans to create 35 new jobs for software engineers to work on critical technologies in the area of Hadoop and Big Data.

“The main thrust of what is happening in Dublin with AOL is we have these amazingly smart developers building the backbone to amazingly intelligent new technologies.

“I can’t tell you specifically about the technologies they are building up here, but one thing that is interesting is it talks to the themes we see emerging in the future direction of the internet.”

One of the internet’s biggest ‘brand’ companies, AOL employs close to 6,000 people around the world, providing a vibrant internet ecosystem that includes content properties like the Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, Mapquest and many others.

David Shing predicts a major shift away from standard internet advertising to what he describes as intent-based marketing. “People don’t tend to hang out on one website, they go in multiples and that’s where behavioural advertising has been interesting.”

Big Data in the evolution of the web

But because of Big Data it is now possible for brands to detect people’s intentions and anticipate their needs better.

“We’re now starting to understand people’s patterns and that can only start to happen when you’ve got Big Data. This is where the rubber really hits the road. If I’m doing searches on my desktop and the web is trying to understand what I need why should doesn’t that continue when I pick up my phone and head out to launch?” That’s a long way of saying what our guys in Dublin are focused on and many of them are heavyweight technicians.”

When the CEO of AOL Tim Armstrong was in Dublin last October at the Web Summit he also intimated that the company was focused on the next evolution of the internet.

I ask Shing what he thinks of Facebook’s move in the direction of Graph Search.

“Facebook can go that way because they are single site-bound. At AOL we have a number of properties that all loop together and help the day-to-day digital life. That’s our mantra. If we are able to enable people with the tools to improve their human experiences online, that’s all we care about. And that’s what we do with this cluster of sites.

“As we go from a crowded space to more focused places where we want to hang out with like-minded people, the idea of having these really focused subject matter web sites matter more and more. This is because they play to people’s passions as opposed to trying to figure out what their passions are. That’s some of the limitation that exists with search and some of the limitations within social networking sites because they are so damn generic.”

Shing admits he spends less and less time on social networking sites. “For me it has become so random and I’ve also made the mistake in the past of having all these random relationships and friendships and they don’t have any context to my entire life. I prefer to listen to a subset of people who share the same interests as me. The rest I just count as noise.

“I think the whole idea of like-minds is going to be very important.”

Linking like-minds

Shing says that one of the things that dominates converstations at AOL is how can the web be programmed to be better attuned to people’s need states.

“Television does a great job at need state because I can watch a very different programme at 11am in the morning to what I’d watch at 11pm at night. But when we’re onlne we also have lots of different need states and they are all at different times of the day and are about different things.

“If I want to accomplish something I might go to a grocery delivery store online and get my groceries delivered. If I’m just looking for some kind of release I might go to a casual games site for 10 minutes at lunchtime or a gossip site or a news site.

“In terms of the web industry we just haven’t programmed that need state that TV has succeeded in. Its something that keeps me awake at night.

“If we can just enable digital to allow people to have better human experiences then we’ve done our job. If digital can be a companion to human experiences, then that’s awesome.”

Shing says that AOL differs from all the other web giants because it actually produces content. “We were the original connector – that’s what AOL was known for. But what’s interesting about AOL’s legacy is it simplified the web for a lot of people.

“In order to do the same thing in terms of people’s daily digital experiences we need to simplify the way they get their digital information.

“We develop content and we are one of the few web giants that actually does own and develop content. Facebook gives you a platform. We’re the number one news-referrer on Facebook and that’s through The Huffington Post. If you look at Google, if you don’t build relevant content they can’t scour it for you to go to the top.

“We may have picked an expensive route but it’s the one thing that’s fuelling the internet still.”

Shing says that the challenge now is to evolve from being the ‘connected’ generation where we can simply connect on a myriad of devices to being the ‘connection’ generation where useful content and connections are working for us.

“Our true value will always be: are we providing rich content in all its form, whether its long or short form, written or video. We don’t care as long as we are providing the right information to people in a way that will hopefully enhance their lives.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years