Still not convinced of the importance of the user in the Web 2.0 model in Figure 4-1? Despite its being considered “so 10 minutes ago” in some corners of the Internet, Time Magazine selected Web 2.0—and in particular, those people who are directly shaping it—as its esteemed Person of the Year for 2006, just as Web 2.0 was gathering steam.
Specifically, in December 2006 Time singled out you in recognition of your achievement as the actual source of the exciting things happening on the Internet and in society today. Yes, you, reading this right now (at least, if you’ve been contributing to the Web in some way using today’s increasingly ubiquitous tools and technologies, ranging from the basic blog or wiki to video-sharing platforms and social bookmarking sites).
The truth of the matter is that just about any interaction with the Web generates new content that someone else can use. The Web in this context is generally referred to as the Database of Intentions. What this means is that if you’re using the Web today, you’ve become an integral part of a new generation of openness, sharing, and community that some think may be recognized in hindsight as breaking down important cultural barriers and institutions, in a fashion similar to what happened in the 1960s. True, it may not seem like a revolution to those who see the Web growing bit by bit every day, but taken as a whole, there’s now little doubt that the Web has become the most powerful, egalitarian, and knowledge-rich platform in human history. Rapid evolution appears to have accelerated into a sort of revolution.
Time’s Person of the Year cover story appeared with the tagline “In 2006, the World Wide Web became a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter.” This bestowal felt very different from Time’s 1982 honoring of the PC, which the magazine went so far as to call “Machine of the Year.” After examining some of the world’s problems, the cover story’s lead author, Lev Grossman, wrote:
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you’ll see another story, one that isn’t about conflict or great men. It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
The cynical among us will find some of Lev’s analysis to be starry-eyed and excessively optimistic. However, calling out Web 2.0 by name, the Person of the Year cover story makes careful note that the mass participation we’re witnessing on a grand scale on the Internet cuts both ways:
Sure, it’s a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary. Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.
That lead story was just the beginning; Time prepared an extravaganza of supporting material and documentation in the form of 13 separate stories that ranged across the Web 2.0 terrain, covering subjects from online virtual worlds such as Second Life to digital photography.
2006 was undoubtedly Web 2.0’s opportunity to reach a wider audience, with the term making the covers of major publications such as Newsweek and The Economist. In the blogosphere, made up of the self-appointed contributors who are making some of this happen, the commentary on Time’s choice covered the spectrum. Jeff Jarvis, of the Buzz Machine blog fame, agreed with most of what the authors wrote, and just requested that they turn down the volume a bit. Nick Carr, of the Rough Type blog, was surprisingly easy on the article, though he’d long since posted his opinions of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. Infectious Greed’s Paul Kedrosky accused the series of being a blatant cop-out, with more important issues elsewhere in the world deserving more attention.
The fact remains that the Web as it exists today—with sites such as MySpace and YouTube eagerly offering anyone who wants one a more or less permanent, scalable “channel” of his own on the Internet—makes it possible for anyone with great, or at least interesting, ideas to reach its billion-plus users. Never before in history has access to the largest audience of users in the world been, apart from the personal time it takes to contribute, essentially free.
The long-term effects of this connectedness will no doubt be as unpredictable as they will be significant, as the control over information and content becomes relentlessly decentralized. The Web is a system without an owner, a platform that’s under no one’s control, though anyone is free to build a new platform on top of it. Companies have had varying success doing just that, but the design patterns and business models for making the Web work best are at last beginning to be understood. Control is shifting to the edge of the Internet instead of the center, and it’s not likely to shift direction without extremely potent motivation.
Collectively, this trend (the shift of control, the pervasive ability of anyone to trigger inflection points, and so on) is sometimes referred to as social computing, and its effects will be long in unfolding. As depicted in Figure 4-5, companies and organizations that continually hand over more nonessential control to their employees, customers, and suppliers will almost certainly be the big winners. Although the precise definition of Web 2.0 continues to evolve, its fundamental effect—the harnessing of collective intelligence—has the genuine potential to fundamentally remake our cultures, societies, and businesses, and even, as Grossman states in the Time series, to “change the way we change the world.”
Whether or not you like the term Web 2.0, the Web is putting you in charge of just about anything you can imagine. We recently spoke to a major fashion industry CEO who said he eventually expects to have product lines that are designed entirely by user contribution, with the best of the resulting submissions being selected by the company’s customers as what will be available that year. The consumers are becoming the producers. Turning over nonessential control can result in enormous gains in economic efficiency, as tens of thousands or even millions of customers’ creative output is harnessed in a mutually beneficial way. Organizations that do not embrace the Web’s natural communication-oriented strengths will fail when they enter into competition with those that do.