The Anti-Web 2.0 Movement

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He might not take this as a compliment, but I think Andrew Keen will be recognized as the Bill O’ Reilly of the Anti-Web 2.0 movement.

Love him or hate him, O’ Reilly accomplished something very important for the conservatives in this country: He defined the enemy. For a long time, many conservatives struggled to describe exactly who they had their disagreements with. Until O’ Reilly came along and defined the term Secular Progressive.

In his Change This manifesto, Keen, the author of “The Cult Of The Amateur,” does the same for the growing number of voices railing against the Web 2.0 movement. In his manifesto, he defines the digital utopians, who, according to Keen, believe that:

The mainstream media is an elite racket monopolized by privileged experts, which has failed (they believe) to reward real talent. Society is, consequently, full of unjustly published writers, unrecorded musicians, undistributed movie directors. Web 2.0’s technology, therefore, is emancipating. By becoming bloggers and podcasters, we — the traditional audience — become the empowered author. [Web 2.0] technology frees culture from the traditionally authoritative [media] institutions. So the “good guys” — the bloggers, remixers, and denizens of the virtual worlds — are uniting audience and author into something called ‘citizen media’.”

Keen warns, however, that the greatest casualty of this vision is the “disappearance of shared cultural understanding and experience. Conversation — one of the ideological fetishes of the Web 2.0 movement — is one of the first casualties. In a world of 70 million bloggers publishing 1.5 million blogs in the US every day, we are too busy broadcasting our opinion to have anything to say to each other.”

Keen is not alone in his critique of the Web 2.0 movement. John Dvorak of PC Magazine recently wrote:

Every single person working in the media today who experienced the dot-com bubble believes that we are going through the exact same process and can expect the exact same results—a bust. The current bubble, called Bubble 2.0 to mock the Web 2.0 moniker, is harder to pin down insofar as a primary destructive theme is concerned. A number of unique initiatives, however, are in play here.”

Dvorak goes on to list a number of aspects of Web 2.0 that may contribute to its destruction, including “neo-social networking”, “mobile everything”, and user-generated content.

My take:
Both Keen and Dvorak are wrong on certain counts, but raise valid points on others:

  • Conversation not a casualty of the Web 2.0 movement. In fact, in terms of business-to-customer conversations, firms haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what’s possible. What Web 2.0 has done, is given more people a way for their voice to be heard — even if nobody hears it, and even if that voice isn’t worth hearing (although that judgment would be a display of the same eliteness digital utopians are guilty of).
  • And Dvorak (who I believe was intentionally fanning the flames by overstating the unanimity of the media in expecting a bust) is wrong to characterize the current Web 2.0 environment as a bubble. The dot-com era was a bubble in that the mania that overtook business pushed up stock prices to ridiculous levels. But current stock market prices aren’t buoyed by Web 2.0 fever. Hence, no Web 2.0 bubble.

But both men are right in identifying an irrational exuberance with the current and potential impact of Web 2.0. This irrationality is nothing new — generations have overstated, overpromised, and over-hoped for the impact of their particular social revolution going back to Marx (Karl, not Groucho).

My bet is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Web 2.0 will have significant impact on some aspects of how we interact from both a interpersonal and business perspective — but not all of the current Web 2.0 technologies will contribute equally. And it might take so long for those changes to take hold, that it will hardly seem like a revolution.

Most important, however, is that these guys represent what is becoming the Anti Web 2.0 movement — Keen in particular, with the publication of his book. And even if you don’t agree with them — and the other voices rising up in opposition to Web 2.0 — they’re worth listening to and considering. They learned something from the last bubble (and possibly even those previous to that). And you might learn something from that.

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