Mille Feuille or Mont Blanc? Musings on RockMelt, the Social Browser

Like a mille feuille or a mont blanc pastry, this post is intended to be short and sweet; a light gathering of thoughts, sprinkled with icing sugar. Any extension of this post by way of comments and feedback will, as always, be most welcome, and anyone slipping off to the local p√Ętisserie to satisfy a craving for cake will be duly forgiven.

Effectively, this is the continuation of a personal response to a recent trial of RockMelt, the new Chromium powered, social browser. My purpose here is not to offer a user review, but to question some of the basic assumptions at work in the way the browser frames the user experience of the world wide web.

One of the first things that struck me when using RockMelt was the impact of the frame or ‘edge’ as the company likes to call it. It creates a distancing effect that makes the experience of the Internet inside that frame seem prosaic – part of a different order of things. By foregrounding the social web, the ‘edge’ sets up a series of binaries: dynamic/static, social/non-nonsocial, live/recorded, ephemeral/archival, conversational/informational and so on.

In this new relationship, the background (i.e. the Web pre-RockMelt) takes on the role of an archival/archeological layer that refers back to a previous incarnation of the Web; one that is still fully operational, but one that operates under the conditions of an older technological paradigm. The choice of the name ‘edge’ seems to confirm this stance, suggesting that the browser is at the cutting edge of Web technology.

Indeed, naming conventions seem to play an important role in this project. Take the browser title for example, RockMelt, here we find another contrast at work: on one side there’s the outcome of a geological process and on the other side an agent of the geological process; the one is fixed and the other is fluid.

Back in early to mid-2009, amid the rise of real-time, geo-location services for mobile, and the ubiquity of Twitter and Facebook, a race got underway to colonise this allegedly new chapter in Internet history. A plethora of names was in circulation including ‘social web’, ‘real time web’ and ’2010 web’, but all proponents were united in their effort to mark a clean break with a similarly opaque paradigm called ‘Web 2.0′. What RockMelt does is to force this evolutionary process, this ‘mont blanc’ of Internet ecology, into becoming an identifiable rift, so that it can lay claim to the primacy of social. The more you determine a phenomenon, make it describable, reiterable, replicable, the more easy it is to market it. The question that remains in my mind is to what extent is the social web the expression of an evolutionary reality v.s. to what extent is it being driven by market forces?

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