Web addresses are slowly becoming less relevant as tech progresses on a number of fronts. As they're replaced, the systems used in their place will be more than a destination. In fact, they'll be only the beginning of the journey.
Here's what I'm talking about: If you're reading this on a Mac or a PC then right up there on the top of your browser window—possibly the biggest part of it—is the URL bar containing the address of this webpage. You probably tap site names into it a hundred times a day or so—and invariably those addresses end in ".com." These words are actually a handy code for the real IP address of a server somewhere where the webpage lives—an address which is a string of numbers. Computers love numbers. The web addresses we're all so used to are simply a people-friendly way to connect to a server and thus website, because people don't really love numbers.
Yet a change is coming, because URLs are clunky. They're basically a simple way of getting to a single destination—a webpage—and then navigating you on from there to more and bigger and more interesting things. And that's about it.
One way you may get around this matter is to use a search engine like Google, which suggests related topics to your search query. But searches like this, while powerful, still center on the idea of a webpage as a destination—and the search keyword is a way of getting there.
Hashtags are bigger than this idea because they run through different locations instead of stopping at one. They've also got the potential to be cross-service in a way a simple URL wouldn't ever be: A "#Euro2012" hashtag on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ for example means the same thing to everyone. Clicking on a hashtag takes you to content that is dynamic, crowd-generated and—in the case of brands or other "sponsored" tags—carefully curated.
Twitter obviously thinks so. Recently it's made several changes to the way it deals with hashtags to bring them to the forefront of its social network as a way of navigating around. You may have already started to hear phrases like "look us up at hash CNN" when watching the TV. Twitter's most obvious move in this direction has been to promote its tie-up with NASCAR on a hashtag "landing page"—a front page you end up on when you click on the "#NASCAR" hashtag on a browser. Though this is just another webpage, the way you get there is very different than clicking on a URL. This is not a technicality either, it involves a very different thought process: Imagine a different situation, when you're reading an online social media conversation revolving around an earthquake—collected information from all sorts of people all over the web is tied together with a hashtag just like this. That's why brands like NASCAR are interested in this tech—the brand word itself is the gateway.
In a different way Twitter's trying to enhance its discovery powers through its search engine. It's made an effort to brush up its search powers, adding in suggested spelling corrections and a degree of smartness that works out if you're searching for similar information after a previous search query, so it can refine its suggestions. In this manner its search engine is personalized to you as a user at that moment, which is an attempt to keep you discovering feeds and Twitterers and hashtags inside Twitter that are interesting and relevant to you.
And outside the realm of services like Twitter, soon you'll notice that when the thousands of new gTLDs—terminators like .ketchup, .mormon, and .Amazon—that ICANN is in the process of enabling actually arrive, then how you think about web addresses themselves will change. Daniel Schindler, cofounder of Donuts one of the biggest applicants for gTLDs, explains to Fast Company that he expects "tremendous innovation as a result of this program...there will be incredible amount of thought about what people can do, what apps they can add to certain gTLDs." And a major part of this innovation will be as an engine for discovery—local pizza stores could aggregate under the .pizza name, perhaps resulting in you finding a new store that you've never been to before.
Meanwhile the evolution of tablet computing means there are services like Flipboard that aggregate information coming from different sources for you without you ever having to think about typing "www dot cnn dot com" into a browser. And if you still prefer to use a tablet browser, you may even know how to "pin" your favorite website to the homescreen of, say, your iPad. At that point you stop worrying about URLs altogether, and instead organize how you surf the web by working out which icon to tap on.
There's no end point to this evolution, but you can bet that one day when your kid clicks on a virtual button on their 10th generation tablet computer, opening up an array of links, tags, and curated content—none of which is labelled with anything as clunky as a URL—they'll ask you: "What's a dot com, anyway?"
[Image: Flickr user Kaytee Riek]