Internet Hierarchy of Needs

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= A five-level description of how the internet corresponds to human needs, inspired by the model of Abraham Maslow.

Graphic at



Introduction at

"The concept behind a hierarchy of needs is simple: each need must be filled before the next one becomes important, and each need loses its importance as it gets filled. With that in mind, the primary need in any system will be that of existence. Without existence, there is no point in worrying about hyperlinks, or semantics, or indexing, or metatagging.

The question at each level is always, “What problem do we have to solve before we can begin to worry about anything else?”" (

Level 1: Existence

Thesis: Basic elements for the Internet to work: computers connecting to each other and volume of documents

Discussion at

Level 2: Connectivity

Thesis: The ability to connect to and between documents and sites, and its subsequent implications

Discussion at

"So what is the distinction between being able to connect computers and being able to link from within documents?

I think it’s huge.

Connecting computers means I give you a key to my filing cabinet. You can look in it, read files, and maybe edit them or make some copies if I let you or if you don’t care about my IP. Powerful stuff.

Not nearly as powerful, though, as the ability to connect from within documents. Here’s why: when I link from within a document, the object of my link becomes a part of the document. The document becomes defined through the relationship, rather than existing as a stand-alone item that can be accessed externally.

This is a significant evolutionary step. This is the difference between a collection of atoms and a living creature. This is the difference between Archie and Google.

Our existence is defined by relationships. You are live in relation to a place, work in relation to a job, love in relation to a partner. You are Rosemary’s granddaughter and the spitting image of your father.

The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 is the difference between a collection of hardware and a natural system."

Level 3: Interpreting Patterns

Thesis: The ability to sort and search, based on titles, metatags, and document contents

Discussion at

"Without a doubt the best book that I’ve read on Level 3 is John Battelle’s The Search. In the beginning, nothing about how to organize the medium was obvious: indexing, traffic, monetizing… it was all fair game, and all of these problems had to be solved in order to create a viable and stable (somewhat) platform on which to build businesses and economies.

Google’s PageRank algorithm underscores the distinct importance of Level 2 as compared to Level 1. The correlation between relationships and relevance is undeniable, spam attempts notwithstanding. PageRank says, “You can’t look at these documents and sites in a vacuum. The way to understand them is through their connections to each other.”

Level 2 says the connections have to exist, and Level 3 says that we have to be able to interpret them.

We are at Level 3 now. We will likely be at Level 3 for several years to come. Most personalization attempts exist at Level 3. Google’s algorithm tweaks exist at Level 3. Most of Charles’ alternate search engines have business models based on Level 3.

There’s nothing wrong with Level 3, of course. It has worked remarkably well for ten years, and will continue to serve us until we supplant it. But you can already hear the rumblings… once we get this stuff organized, then what? And that will take us to Level 4, Semantic Needs, for which you’ll have to tune in tomorrow."

Level 4: Semantic Needs

Thesis: The ability to derive meaning from language, content and context

Discussion at

Level 4 is where we get into semantics: interpreting content and deriving meaning therefrom.

Level 5: Actualization

Thesis: The Web becomes a frictionless tool for personal growth and fulfillment

Discussion at

" For the past week, we’ve been progressing inexorably towards realizing the full potential of the Internet by asking the same question over and over: “Once we’ve done X, what’s next?”

  • Once we’ve connected computers to each other, we can connect documents to each other.
  • Once we’ve connected documents to each other, we can extrapolate meaning from the connections.
  • Once we’ve extrapolated meaning from the connections, we can extrapolate meaning from the data.
  • And now, Level 5: once we’ve extrapolated meaning from the data, the Web can become actualized, and, in doing so, fulfill its role as a tool for our self-actualization.

This is what Level 5 of the Internet Hierarchy is about: the technology ceases to matter, and our focus returns to the true meaning of what we’re doing.

We begin to use the Internet to improve early disease detection and rapid disaster response. We use it to combat climate change. We use it to map the human genome."