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29 May 2007

American Idol, the Enterprise, and Web 3.0

Warning: This (long) post contains rampant speculation, unfounded arguments, and poorly structured reasoning.

Web 3.0 seems to have entered the lexicon of the blogosphere, though it remains undefined. Well, a lot of folks define it as the semantic web. This is cool from a CS perspective, but the 2.0 nomenclature wasn't fundamentally a technology designation, so it doesn't really seem right that 3.0 should be. The semantic web should really be web 2.0 in that sense, but anyway. I'm a little more interested in the web's evolution through usage and business models. So in that sense, what's 3.0? I play the part of a psyched-about-the-future geek all day, so I'll make the devil's advocate argument for the sake of contributing to the discussion -- whether I believe it or not is sort of a separate question (I don't). It's good to argue against yourself once in a while, right?

The premise is what I'll call the American Idolization of the web: The next phase of the web experience will look more traditional , with a standard blend of "mainstream" and "alternative" content powered by a federation of a small number of large players, than any of us geeks want to admit.

The Groundwork

Taking an industry/social-trend view, rather than a technology-centric view (semantically-aware, user-mashupable, etc), of the web's next phase, we're closer than we might think to the point of being able to use Tim O'Reilly's "this is qualitatively different; let's call it web 3.0" rule. Whatever we call it, the point at which the current 2.0 version of web hits critical mass with the mainstream is a big enough deal that we should call it out, it's already happening, and it may not be as cool as we all thought.

So where have we been?

We'll focus on these as (one guy's version of) practical reality in terms of how the industry and the technology have developed -- we could talk all day about the original intent of TBL and others, whether "web 2.0" was a useful name, whether what we call web 2.0 now was simply what was really intended from the start, and whether there were social networks 15 years ago. Here is a good jumping off point to a relevant set of discussions with O'Reilly and Tim Berners Lee, two smart guys.

Back to the premise. We all love to talk about AJAX, tagging and folksonomies, microformats, user-generated content, personalization, widgets, social networks (or social networking platforms), and the rest. I love Clay Shirky and David Weinberger and their views on structuring information, and the debate over the semantic web, strongly vs loosely defined taxonomies, RDF, etc. I love Marc Canter's Digital Lifestyle Aggregator concept, which presents a view of the class of services that will tie all our crap together and help us make sense of it. I love the distributed computing paradigm that simple widgets and start pages will evolve to. I love this stuff because I'm a geek. But I love to talk about it in the same way that those crazy Spanish cooks love to talk about foams and airs and their influence on world gastronomy. We're the Dean (or Obama?) supporters, and its great to be there, and great stuff happens, but Bush still won. It's easy to forget about the poor old mass-market user, and what's reasonable or unreasonable to expect that they will do (and pay for), in the midst of this debate.

I'll use my lovely wife as a use-case. She has a highly-successful corporate career, a huge professional as well as social network (offline), and couldn't give a damn about del.icio.us or the Facebook platform. She's an email/calendaring user, an e-commerce shopper, an online bill-payer, even watches stuff on YouTube -- she's like a lot of "regular people" in her use of the web. She likes geni.com not because it's a social network play for the family or because it has a cool Ajax UI, but because it's an easy way to create a family tree. What does she really care about "web 2.0"? She doesn't, and neither do most people. And by most people I mean most people in a certain set of socio-economic bands, which still represent a minority of the population -- we're not even talking about the rest of the world.

Web 1.0 (and prior) kicked off a massive cultural shift -- it really was, and is, something revolutionary. All of a sudden people began to communicate with one another in totally new ways, began to take advantage of daily-life convenience services never before thought possible (my parents tell me that balancing a checkbook on Sunday evening used to be a major event), gained access to new amounts of information about themselves, their health, their communities, and their governments. Parts of the world began to open up with new definitions of access, and average folks got their feet wet with the concepts and some of the basic tools (e.g. an email client, a browser).

This has been a continuing journey over the last several years -- more and more applications, better and better interfaces, delivered via greater and greater penetration of broadband and PC access. Personalization in e-commerce is just one of many great incremental technical achievements we've seen large groups of "regular" users benefit from. Developers and technologists have been feeling their ways around the workings of these things -- learning how to take a service-oriented view of the world, how to build richer user interfaces in a browser, the virtues of content syndication, and how to collaborate with one another more and more effectively. Similarly, users have been experimenting. It will be clear in the final analysis, if its not already, that the emergence of the blogosphere, of big-S-big-N Social Networks, and of user-generated content in general over the last few years were seminal events, but they were just very introductory baby steps. Web 2.0 is really about slight technical paradigm shifts and and online social experimentation, and makes sense in the long run only as a necessary interim step to what comes next. Again, not in terms of what the formal definitions may be, but in terms of mass-market adoption, end user behaviors, and business applications (valley VCs don't count as representatives of modern global business).

The Next Wave

What's next, then, what we might call web 3.0, is when the participants collectively hit their stride with what are now more accurately seen as anomalous events, and when the real money starts coming in. Take a look at the distribution of information across the web today, how even though there are millions and millions of nodes on the web, it's a small number that get most of the traffic, hold most of the data, and provide most of the widely used applications. Though there are millions of blogs you can read to get news and opinion, users don't read millions of blogs, they read a few (not including mine) or, more likely, they read a summary view that is aggregated by someone else, and someone that looks a lot more like mainstream media (my hero Dave Winer has some other thoughts on MSM in web 3.0 here). They listen to NPR, maybe watch FOX. They don't surf all the Technorati results, they go to a few aggregate locations. They don't use feed readers or start pages to assemble their own custom dashboard of applications and content from across the web. They watch video online, but they still sit down to watch American Idol as-its-broadcast and spend more time with a set-top box than with a PC hooked up to the TV. Again, keep in mind we're speaking about general population here, not us technophiles.

Web 3.0 is where we'll see the convergence of MSM outlets, main-stream portal providers, and big enterprises sucking in all the cool stuff that came on in the scene in web 2.0 -- that's where the vast majority of users will experience media, get and share opinion, accomplish the tasks of life and work, and be entertained. There will always be a huge current of leading-edge users that embrace the full spectrum of services available to them, in real-time, and remix them to their needs, but in the grand scheme of things this is a tiny minority of users. It isn't until the user numbers on these things increase that these concepts get really interesting. People consume Digg stories indirectly because the interns at CNN read Digg and then feed them up for the main coverage, people participate on message boards of major TV networks to talk about their favorite character's hairstyle, and enterprise users start to see more Wikis and blogs deployed internally.

And with respect to social networks, we are talking about big numbers already. But we're also talking about hugely transient models. We've seen a few networks now come and go. We've seen that there is a high degree of tolerance for, and interest in, people having individual presences on the web, that they can interact with and connect to others and to their interests. We've also seen that while that's interesting, there's not a whole lot that's new in the grand scheme of things -- it's just a tech-powered societal update to hanging out at the mall, going to a tupperware party, whatever. It's not the same level of transformation that took place when the web first began to see widespread use in the 90s. The real transformation there will be about the long-tail networks. Some of the longest-lived communities on the web today still exist as collections of people that email one another, or maybe even hang out on some crappy old bulletin board implementation.

So wrapping up this devil's advocate view of what mass-media Web 3.0 will be, some trends we'll see:

So What Now?

Nothing -- remember we're just playing devil's advocate here, and I'll probably post the opposite side of these arguments at some point soon ;-). If you read all this you get a gold star.

There's plenty on the web about web 3.0, the semantic web, and other people's opinions on where it's all going. Here are a few posts I personally find interesting:

tagged: technews