What worries me about "Web 2.0"

I just recently started to realize why I don't like the term "Web 2.0".  I've been conflicted in that I'd like to have a name for a cause that I'm dedicating so much of my life to.  But it shouldn't get watered down so much that it has no meaning.

Now that the backlash is gaining momentum it's becoming more clear why it's a problem.

In 2002 and 2003 there were a lot of people already wrestling with and talking loudly about collaboration and syndication and service-oriented architectures and open source and all the key ingredients that have opened up so many important opportunities.  Thomas Friedman was writing "The Flat World" at the same time to address the larger economic shifts happening as a result of these changes, but a conference in October 2004 changed the dialog and made the changes more tangible.

Tim O'Reilly named the era with his "Web 2.0 Conference" well before it was ready to be discovered by the gold-digging khaki-slacked MBAs who pumped up and then crushed the first Internet wave.  Naming the new era meant that vulture capitalists and bizdev bandwagoneers would return, jack up market valuations on silly ideas and steer the creative energy that was making progress toward things like collective intelligence to one that valued Atherton landownership instead.  

What was cool was suddenly yesterday's news.  The second album of the Internet was released before the songs were finished.

Sure enough, MySpace got bought for $580M and before too long FaceBook would turn down $750M in hopes of a $2B purchase price.  C'mon.  Why so greedy?  Being a "Web 2.0" company does not inherently make you valuable.

The type of people who wanted to invest themselves in a cause got mixed up with people who wanted to take advantage of a trend.  John Hagel details the problems with the Nike/Google collaboration site Joga.com which was clearly inspired by (or taking advantage of) "Web 2.0" trends:

"Back in the late 1990’s, virtually every dot com business proposal pitched the "virtual community" concept.  Few of these initiatives had anything to do with virtual communities... The backlash was predictable....
Joga.com seeks to tap into the global enthusiasm for soccer by building a virtual community so that fans can get together online and share their interest in this sport...
Unfortunately, despite a few Google videos and Nike ads, there isn’t much content provided by the organizers to spark or stimulate discussion."

Google may have the power to create critical mass behind this site and build something mildly interesting, but they are doing so at the expense of their credibility as a brand.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

And if Google isn't afraid to let the ad sales team build products in the name of "Web 2.0", then what's to stop everyone else from doing it?  Next we'll see journalists justifying sketchy tactics in the name of preservation.  Paul Conley shares a disturbing example of this happening as online B2B trade publications use press releases in place of independent reporting:

"Open any story. Copy some text. Paste the text into Google and search. You'll find that the pieces that [Desktop Engineering] labels as 'written by DE editors' are press releases written by someone else."

You can see how one might blame "Web 2.0" hype on a breakdown in journalistic integrity and extend it to other trends.  For example, the SF Chronicle wrote yesterday that KRON TV reporters are producing advertorials disguised as news:

"[General Manager KRON TV Mark Antonitis] said he is looking for new ways to make money.  That includes charging 'product integration fees' to advertisers who want to be included in a story...Advertising growth for local television stations is slowing, squeezed by the proliferation of cable channels and the Internet."

The blame game is on.  This is just the beginning.

The flaws or threats of "Web 2.0" will escalate to more mainstream awareness when click fraud costs a small businessman his life savings and a MySpace lurker commits the worst imaginable horror.  The anti-hype will argue the liberal idealists are pushing us toward an impossible utopian promise with the same predictable outcomes as communism -- corruption, violence and oppression.  They will blame "Web 2.0" for everything that's wrong about the world.

Advertisers will pull back.  Panic ensues.  And layoffs will begin again.

Then those who stuck it out through the last burst will have to fight to stay employed instead of working on what they were trying to build before they got distracted.  The believers will be martyrs once again.

The idea of going through that now that I have a family makes me feel nauseous.

Of course, the name "Web 2.0" was coined by a geek for geeks.  It turns out that it's still too opaque for most people to understand.  Newsweek refused to commit to the name and went with the "Live Web" and the "We Web" for their recent cover story on this market.  

I'm hoping the naming muddle will keep people confused long enough for a few more breakthroughs to put a few more startups safely into profitability before the backlash starts to have a real impact.


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Posted:  Fri Apr 07 01:59:52 EDT 2006
What worries me about "Web 2.0"