Pricking the Web 2.0 bubble

08 Sep 2006

In its relentless push to create the future, the tech community neglects the past.

The hyper-activity of a market upswing, like now, creates the illusion of forward momentum. What is really happening is wads of cash are being thrown at new multimedia and social networking businesses.

The result is an echo chamber of VCs, some tech business leaders and bloggers, who have convinced each other they have found a disruptive new business.

Recent blog postings have revealed some second thoughts on the vaporous concept that is Web 2.0.

This priceless post on the GigaOm site began it all. "A couple days ago, we pointed to Mooglets widgets, the creation of Rome-based Today, we are shocked to learn that Mad4milk has been acquired by Freewebs. The Web host says it will repackage Mad4milk's JavaScript effects library, offering developer community site Freewebs Farms, and soon a widget library."

Kevin Maney of USA Today said this entry marked the "nuttiness" of the whole Web 2.0 and social networking mania.

Robert Scoble, spin doctor, former PR honcho at Microsoft and one of a number of Web 2.0 boosters, admits in his blog that Web 2.0 exists only in a notional bubble inside Silicon Valley.

"I wish we had a conference on "Ëœhow to find customers outside of the tech bubble‾' The entire industry could use some creative thinking there," lamented Scoble, whose previous enthusiasm incidentally, was for corporate blogging.

Symbol of globalization
So, let me take you back in time, to a more innocent and less-connected world that was welcoming an extraordinary new global communications infrastructure.

It was a symbol of globalization, an end to distance and to ancient prejudices and hatreds. It quickly became indispensable for modern business, while governments fretted that it threatened national security. Users complained about information overload and newspaper editors feared extinction.

Very quickly it was used as a vehicle for stale jokes and gossip, for romance and dating, and financial fraud.

Of course, I am referring to the arrival of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, described by British journalist Tom Standage in his book "The Victorian Internet".

If ever there were a disruptive technology, surely it was the telegraph. It certainly created a "new economy".

People the same wild claims about the telegraph that are made about the Internet today.

Yet apart from the Pony Express, it's hard to find an economic loser. Newspapers, despite their concerns, thrived by being able to publish for the first time in history news as it happened.

It's hard enough to explain what Web 2.0 is, let alone imagine it challenging the existing media and world of networking - e.g., drinks in the pub - to generate a whole new industry.

What we see today is a reminder that at the sweet spot of the market, VCs will put their money into just about anything.

We can do worse than recall the advice of philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Robert Clark is Editor at Large for Telecom Asia[email protected]

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