Behind the random silliness of YouTube videos and the juvenile frivolity of MySpace Web sites lies a powerful idea: Everyday people are using technology to gain control of the media and change the world.
At least that’s what a new breed of Internet technologists and entrepreneurs want us to believe. The new Internet boom commonly referred to as Web 2.0 is really an exercise in digital democracy.
Dubbed Digital Utopians by some, and Web 2.0 innovators by others, this latest wave of tech gurus champion community over commerce, sharing ideas over sharing profits. By using Web sites that stress group thinking and sharing, these Internet idealists want to topple the power silos of Hollywood, Washington, Wall Street and even Silicon Valley. And like countless populists throughout history, they hope to disperse power and control, an idea that delights many and horrifies others.
Tim O’Reilly is the founder and chief executive of O’Reilly Media in Sebastopol, a tech publisher and event organizer who hung a name on the movement with his Web 2.0 Conference, which will be held this year starting Tuesday in San Francisco. In his manifesto on the movement last fall, O’Reilly wrote glowingly about “the wisdom of crowds” and the “architecture of participation.”
Winners on the Internet “have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence,” O’Reilly wrote, populating “a world in which ‘the former audience,’ not a few people in a back room, decides what’s important.”
Indeed, millions of people each month visit social networking destinations like MySpace, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and video-sharing sites like YouTube. Political groups like MoveOn.org have galvanized grassroots organizing. News aggregators like Digg.com have given editing power to readers. Combined, these Web sites have changed the landscape of countless industries and some have become worth billions.
They have also tapped a nerve, resonating with people who feel powerless to affect the major power structures.
The core of the Web 2.0 movement resurrects an age-old debate about governance and democracy, one that was argued by political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville: Are the benefits of democracy — taking advantage of what Web 2.0 proponents call the wisdom of the crowds — worth risking the dark side of mob rule?
Chris Messina thinks so. Messina, 26, is a blogger, activist and “open-source evangelist,” a charismatic geek spreading the notion of digital democracy.
“There is more potential today for individuals to change their destiny than there’s been in ages,” Messina said. “We need to get back to the idea that anyone can dream big and make it happen.”
Like any popular movement, it also has its critics.
Andrew Keen warns against the dangers of embracing technology’s level playing field. Keen, 46, a former professor and philosopher turned tech entrepreneur, published a tract this year, “Web 2.0 Is Reminiscent of Marx,” and is working on a book lambasting “The Cult of the Amateur.”
If people are absorbed with content created by fellow amateurs, Keen argues, will they ever know greatness? If bloggers disrupt mass media, will they follow journalistic rules of fairness? Can an army of amateur journalists adequately replace corporate news-gathering? Will sophomoric YouTube videos take the place of great films?
Keen dismisses what he calls the “militant and absurd” buzzwords of Web 2.0: Empowering citizen media, radically democratize, smash elitism, content redistribution, authentic community.
Yet those buzzwords pop up nearly everywhere. Google’s deal to buy video startup YouTube for $1.65 billion provides a glimpse at the potential future of media, one in which programs are made not by polished production companies but by anyone with a low-cost camcorder. In this world, programming decisions rest with what Web 2.0 calls the community and what critics deride as the mob instead of with cadres of networking executives.
Rather than turning to the mass media, people can get their information from blogs, podcasts and even MySpace pages. Rather than dialing up a radio station churning out a corporate playlist, anyone can put his idiosyncratic broadcasts online at sites like Mercora and Lala.com.
“Everything is getting flatter,” said Ori Brafman of San Francisco, an entrepreneur and author. “The amateurization is a wonderful thing.”
Brafman is co-author of “The Starfish and the Spider,” a book about “the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.” Spiders, in the title metaphor, are crippled or dead when they lose a limb; starfish, on the other hand, can grow new arms. In the book, Wikipedia — a Web site on which users, not experts, write and edit a free online encyclopedia — is identified as a classic starfish organization.
“When you put people in this kind of an open system, it brings out a different side of people,” Brafman says. “They know the system is based on trust and shared responsibility. People step up to the bat and perform.”
Not exactly, says Nicholas Carr, an author and blogger who joins Keen’s contrarian view of Web 2.0.
Carr calls Wikipedia “at once a major achievement and a mediocre piece of work.”
“Does something like Wikipedia change the economics of producing an encyclopedia (written by experts)? As soon as you have a mediocre product that’s free, is that going to destroy the possibility of having a superior product that costs something?” he asks.
The notion of a Digital Utopia has been around since the early days of computing. Many of the industry’s pioneers saw their machines as tools that could make life easier and unite humanity.
Some of the earliest successes on the Internet have an almost direct lineage to the liberal politics of the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements. Former Merry Prankster Stewart Brand was the brains behind the Well, an early online community that took its name in part from his Whole Earth Review. New York Times technology reporter John Markoff argues in his book, “What the Dormouse Said,” that the ’60s counterculture played a pivotal role in shaping the personal computing industry.
Underpinning the technology movement has always been a sense of community. “Take the Summer of Love,” said Brewster Kahle, 45, founder of the Internet Archive in San Francisco, a digital archiving and storage site. “A tradition was started then of recording concerts of those bands and passing the tapes around. But they had a firm rule that you couldn’t make any money. If you didn’t make any money at all, it was OK to share the love.”
That tradition has migrated to the online world, Kahle said, not just to his site but to a renewed resistance to copyright and a love of sharing information, whether it is music or knowledge.
The Utopian life
Today’s Digital Utopian takes many forms, from the aging ’60s hippie to the tech-savvy youthful idealist. They share little physically, but most everything mentally.
The Utopians attend loosely organized gatherings, often called un-conferences, where there is no agenda other than participation. Messina and his girlfriend, Tara Hunt, have spearheaded a series of events known as BarCamp, where ad-hoc groups bring sleeping bags and food to an office that a company has donated for the occasion, and then stay up late engaging in freewheeling roundtable discussions about how to use the latest technological innovations. BarCamp events have been held around the world; when one is arranged, it’s posted online at www.barcamp.org, and anyone can show up.
“Most of these un-conference things are a big experiment,” Messina said at WineCamp, at which geeks gathered in a Calaveras County vineyard to figure out ways they could use technology to help nonprofit groups. “It’s up to each one of us to make it interesting.”
Utopians’ favored reading material includes “The Long Tail,” in which Wired editor Chris Anderson contends the Internet makes it possible to no longer rely on hits (most notably movies, books and music) but to make big bucks by selling niche products along the tail of the demand curve.
“People are taking advantage of all of these powerful forces,” he said. “The world is changing.”
The modern Digital Utopian uses the Internet constantly and extensively to share information and ideas at social networking sites and communities.
It all adds up to a shared experience, and a generally shared philosophy centered on technology and idealism. And where there is a point of view, a counterpoint is sure to emerge.
The critics and the co-opters
Web 2.0 has inspired its share of critics, social commentators who wonder if something valuable may get lost in the online hubbub.
Can the community produce a collaborative decision? Not usually, Keen says, contending that often a great leader is needed to take charge, whether it’s Bismarck uniting Germany or Steve Jobs developing the iPod. These things don’t happen by putting every decision up for a vote, like a California ballot measure.
Keen, who spurred the debate by coining the phrase Digital Utopian, runs a curmudgeonly blog, The Great Seduction, on the intersection of technology, media and culture, at andrewkeen.typepad.com.
Oddly enough, the Utopians may become victims of their own success. While they advocate a world in which people can share content without concern for profit, much of what they are creating is becoming a tool of the corporate culture they decry.
MySpace, the most popular social networking site, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. YouTube, which was built so that people could share their videos with each other, has been bought by Google. And even though Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil,” it is a publicly traded company with a fiduciary duty to make money.
O’Reilly says this is the natural order of things.
He said the term came from the wreckage of the dot-coms several years ago. Even though many businesses folded, the Internet continued to grow, mature and become more indispensable.
Yet while people, perhaps reacting to the greed that fueled the IPOs of the dot-com years, saw in Web 2.0 a chance to create a new collectivism, O’Reilly said, “I don’t see it that way at all.”
Web 2.0, he says, is about business.
He says many tech movements start out with similar idealism, only to give way to capitalism. For instance, O’Reilly says, Napster introduced file sharing, but now iTunes has people comfortable with paying for music online.
“You do a barn raising at a particular stage of society,” he said, “and then the developers come in. … It always happens that way.”