The Database of Intentions

I was recently reminded of John Battelle’s book “The Search” which he wrote in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble (published in 2005). It was written before the emergence of social media and the age of Facebook and Twitter.  Still, his simple and powerful idea of the Database of Intentions holds up astonishingly well and provides a lens to understanding the disruptive power of social media you may not have considered.

What is the Database of Intentions?

“Link by link, click by click, search is building possibly the most lasting, ponderous, and significant cultural artifact in the history of humankind: the Database of Intentions. The Database of Intentions is simply this: the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.”


“Every day, millions upon millions of people lean forward into their computer screens and pour their wants, fears, and intentions into the simple colors and brilliant background of”

“Entire publishing businesses could be created from the traces of intent evident in such a database  …a research and marketing company capable of telling clients exactly what people were buying, looking to buy, or avoiding …an e-commerce firm that already knew what the buyer wanted …a travel business that knew where the customer wanted to go …fieldwork for thousands of doctorates in cultural anthropology, psychology, history and sociology” [1]

Sound familiar? Indeed, Google has led the way in leveraging this database into a multi-billion dollar advertising business. And a select few researchers that have access to this tightly held data, have applied it to other problems including tracking the economy [2] and the flu [3].

How is Social Disruptive?

Most of us in the business of social media are used to hearing about how social has changed the game in Marketing, CRM, and Commerce. “Accept that you don’t own your brands; your consumers do”, says Coca-Cola’s marketing chief [4].

Social is also an evolution of the Database of Intentions. While passively observing click streams, ad networks and web analytics vendors infer something about consumers’ intentions. Google and the big search engines know more – consumers explicitly express their intent in the search box. Social data deepens this understanding even further by capturing expressions of opinions, tastes, sentiment and personal relationships more directly.

How is this evolution disruptive? Access to this Database of Intentions is changing hands. No longer is it locked up in search logs proprietary to Google. As Facebook and Twitter grow and play with ways to monetize their data, they shift and transfer immense power. Alliances are forged, fates are cast. And while search logs are hidden, social data is shared, at least locally, by design. By its very nature, at least some of this data can be collected by anyone who wants it badly enough.

The Database of Intentions has been set free.





Thanks to Chris DeVore for reminding me about the book.