If we would ask David Phillips or Philip Young what the web is made of, they would tell us about Platforms, Channels and Context.

When we talk about the Internet we are talking about a series of technologies that indeed communicate among themselves, things like satellites, routers, servers and other infrastructures. Information can travel across the Internet in a number of ways, and to access it we refer to communication Platforms such as computers, mobile phones and tablet computers.

But Platforms are simply the objects we use to access information. We can access the same file through an Hypertext Transfer Protocol using a computer or a mobile phone, and we can do the exact same thing using a File Transfer Protocol that will in addition allow us to edit the file. We can also exchange messages through a number of ways, from Instant Messaging to email and twitter, using facebook or any other social network. These are Channels or as I prefer, online communication instruments.

Depending on the circumstances, we use different combinations of platforms and channels. Search engines offer maps that adapt to mobile devices because we look for directions and places to stay while traveling and companies look for ways to access updated information at any time. These are Contexts in which we use the Internet.

To the elements proposed by David Phillips and Philip Young I add Content, which can be seen as the sum of data to obtain information that will be applied to a Context. This post is content because it contains a number of data (ideas and concepts), organized to become information (given a logical line of thought) and given context to become content (Thus a post on Online Public Relations is born).

But what does it all mean?

Nowadays we use information and content in a number of ways and we want it to travel across platforms and channels as best as possible. That is why we have things like XML and Open Document Formats, mobile phones and laptops. We don’t just use these things because we want to work and collaborate in a more efficient and effective way, they are also a means to reach out to friends and relatives.

Building relationships is part of our nature and is one of the reasons that led us to spend so much time and effort developing Communication Technologies. And to communicate we share information and content with those that for some reason are close to us.

Thanks to the Internet we have produced more information and content that we can ever hope to be able to organize, that is why we are slowly moving to a Semantic Web. Simply put, we are finding ways for computers to understand that 9 digits form a phone number and that an address is composed of a street name, house number, region and country. In short, the semantic web is a way of telling a computer what that data you just entered is.

Before you let yourself be dragged by the current hype of the Semantic Web, take the time to read this article from December 2000 describing how Tim Berners Lee himself explained the concept.

So, we now live in a world where a wide variety of communication platforms allow us to use a number of channels to access and share information and content in a number of different contexts (at work, while traveling, at home…). The semantic web will allow us to use that information with even greater ease, but that is a subject for a future post.

Where does Public Relations fit?

We can use these four elements that make up the Internet and the Web to understand the changes in our way to communicate and to relate with one another. In the past we had access to a telephone and a fax machine, today we have a computer and a mobile phone and a number of other platforms to communicate. And if before we used these platforms in a work context, today we can use them in greater number of daily contexts.

When building a strategy we need to take into account which platforms and channels will our publics use to communicate and in what context. Each of them will impose challenges. Intranets may be used on-the-go and therefore require a mobile-friendly version; corporate websites need to be indexed by search engines and therefore must not use flash; our publics demand quick updates so we must opt for a microblogging platform; etc.

These questions will impact our budget, the way we measure and evaluate success as well as the procedures we apply to manage the different communication instruments at our disposal. But it does not end here.

Different communication instruments imply their own set of constraints, both in the way they work and in regards to the social contracts that we must adhere to in order to use them effectively. A clear example would be twitter and facebook, while twitter asks us to limit our updates to 140 characters, facebook asks that we respect the privacy of others.

The content shared across these instruments is also somewhat different, while twitter allows for text and links, facebook gives us the possibility of posting videos, photos, notes and even to play games. One can argue that twitter can also be used to share the exact same content as facebook, but it will always require an additional communication instrument such as posterous, a blog, or a youtube/vimeo account.

Even if we do not outline the scenario which is composed of platforms, channels/instruments, context and content, it is good to keep these concepts in mind as they will surely be useful to identify changes and to adapt our strategy.