There was a time when the web was small and content was still valuable. A time when search engines were of little importance, because whatever you'd search, you'd end up with 0 or 1 results. That time is long since gone, and with that time the value of content on the web has been decreasing slowly but surely. To protect their content, web publishers had to make sure that people looking for something would wind up on their site and not on someone else's. And thus the struggle began.
Today it is extremely important to find good ways to draw people to your site. With every change and improvement of the web, people are looking for new ways to beat the competition. When images became fashionable, banners emerged, when Google got big, the SEO fad started and when web 2.0 hit the public, content got syndicated from all over the web. All of this lead to one curve: advertisement and advertisement blindness.
you, the web surfer
No two people are the same of course, but it is quite safe to assume that many people on the web are looking for a particular piece of information. Their aim is to find it as quickly and elegantly as possible. And when they do find what they are looking for they either leave the web or go look for something else. Surfing the web is like going out for groceries. You want pancakes, you find the nearest shop and you buy whatever you need. You return home and start baking.
As you know, the shop owners don't like that very much. They want you to come to their shop to buy pancake stuff and leave with a super-deluxe barbecue set. And the web is no different. No matter how related and seemingly helpful web advertisements are, it is not their intent to help you along, but to reel you in. Parallel to the real world, surfers get used to these kind of tactics and grow immune to them. At one point this gave birth to the term banner blindness, where banners got actually skipped from view as unwanted fluff.
ups and downs
This struggle between web surfer and web publisher has its natural ups and downs. With new technological advancements the publisher finds new ways to draw in the surfer, but after a while the surfer becomes accustomed to these techniques and starts to see them as regular spam, forcing the publisher to find new ways. There is nothing explicitly wrong with this course, except that advertisement is looking less and less like advertisement these days, and more and more like regular content.
my content, here and everywhere
One effect of the web 2.0 hype is that the view on content changed. Content no longer belongs in one destination, but is a separate snippet that can be exported, carried and reintegrated on different sites. This is essentially a very interesting concept, but should be handled carefully to meet the surfer's needs. And looking around, you start to wonder if anyone is still interested in serving their audience.
Del.icio.us bookmarks, last.fm playlists, Flickr image streams, YouTube favorites, Twitter updates and whatnot. You run into them almost everywhere, in places where they serve no function at all. Visit someone's blog and you are bombarded by his daily doings, visit a companies website and you are invited to read their blog. Buy online and receive purchase tips by other people. Everywhere you go, you are urged to participate in some social event, binding you to the world of someone else and ultimately, their product, be it actual sales or simple content.
Slowly people are starting to create a natural blur to all this clutter. I used to click on some odd links from time to time, but these days, whenever I simply suspect the presence of a list of bookmarks, Twitter updates, tag clouds and whatnot, the area blurs from view. What worries me though is that we are not talking about banner blindness anymore, but about blindness to actual content. Content that was not designed to lure you away in the first place, but is given that purpose by spamming it all over the web.
If you are a blogger, try it yourself. Look for an article of yours in Google and be amazed at the amount of other websites that pop up. Websites that put no effort whatsoever in your writings, but pop up due to your bookmarked site appearing on their web page. And with surfers becoming blind to these kind of things, this just means added traffic for those website owners.
One can only suspect what will come next, but I am quite sure that the struggle between publisher and surfer will continue for quite a while to come. When the social fad has come to a rest, there will be new opportunities for publishers to get their content out there and to lure people in. I just hope that in 10 years time there will be something left of the web, besides one big window blur.
All you can do as site owner is to make sure that whatever extra content you serve could be considered useful to your visitors, rather than useful to you. In the end it's up to every web publisher to decide how far he is willing to go, just don't forget that good content will be noticed, and all the social spam in the world can't change that. For many people surfing the web, it's still about quality of information, not about quantity.