Wednesday, November 08, 2006

So Close, But So Far

Tuesday, November 7, was a historic day. Guess why. What's that you say? Something about an election?

No, it was important because it was the beginning of the 2nd annual Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco. And it's the place to be. It's the flashiest, sexiest, coolest conference in the Valley this year (and I'm stuck in Philly. And it's raining, of course).

And not without reason - Web 2.0 is the rage of the Valley right now. But we've seen rages come and go. The last one, lovingly nicknamed Web 1.0 after the fact, we probably remember all too clearly. I blogged about the new Internet early in the summer, and those thoughts are mostly still valid, but they also represent the oogling of wide-eyed newbie.

And, in that post, I never really addressed the what: what's the real deal with this Web 2.0 nonsense? I'd say it's mostly glitz and glamor - Silicon Valley doing its version of Hollywood. We have our gossip, and our rumors, and it makes sense we have that thing, that ideal, that is very much en vogue right now.

And, as with all buzz words, Web 2.0 has come to mean a lot of things - anything social, viral, AJAX, API-related, and much more has been dubbed "Web 2.0" at one point or another. However, some of the really "2.0" attributes, especially the social features and user generated content, have always been around, albeit with much less fanfare.

But I'm beating around the bush and avoiding the question - does the Web 2.0 represent a fundamental shift in the way we use the internet, or not?

Yes - but not for the reasons you'll hear from most people. Gurus will tell you that the Web 2.0 phenomena is unique because of the great, lifestyle changing ideas that are being churned out. I'd argue the enabling technologies and changing social norms, far more than the ideas and websites themselves, deserve credit for bringing about the online movement.

Disagree? Think about it. Think about the sites that come to mind when you think Web 2.0. YouTube? Brought to you by faster internet speeds and a cool new flash player. Facebook? Brought to you by the ease of internet access on college campuses. MySpace? Ditto, for homes and kids. (Venturing into the more geeky...) Digg? The proliferation of computers and the adoption of the internet as a form of entertainment, causing people to turn to the Web when they're bored. Flickr? The mass adoption of high quality digital cameras and, again, increased connection speeds, making it possible to upload more photos online.

The point is, Web 2.0 has it's roots in the development of computers and electronics - stuff is easier and faster, and some smart people have found ways to leverage that into neat businesses. You can deduce factors, social or technological, behind the success of most 2.0 sites that have little to do with the sites themselves. But don't get me wrong - the ideas and web sites of today are great - brilliant designs by brilliant people (well, some).

In the end, Web 2.0 should not be thought of merely as some cool new web sites, but the harmonic convergence of a variety of variables, empowering the individual to do much more on and with the internet than he ever has in the past.

But that is where we must be careful. "Web 2.0" is great, but it's far too sexy of a term for what should be a fairly long lasting era. And with that "sexy-ness" comes the requisite over-investment.

So VCs beware - the darkside of Web 2.0 is creeping in - irrational exuberance is in the air. (I totally didn't mean to rhyme there.) Money is being poured into start ups at a record rate once again, even with the memory of the bust fresh in our heads. VCs are enamored with the new "generation" of web start ups, to point where it could be dangerous. Whether Web 2.0 causes another bubble is yet to be seen.

But evil, good, fake, real, or bubble, Web 2.0 is currently being discussed. A lot. And I really, really wish I were there...

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