I’m a self-professed geek. Sometimes I lose track of what is common knowledge and what is geek-common knowledge. Where does Web 2.0 fall? Have non-geeks heard of it? Do non-geeks understand what it is? The other day it hit me that “Web 2.0″ is a horrible name for the social trend that it is supposed to describe. What we call “Web 2.0″ is really just a part of something that is much bigger than the web. If this trend is something that is only known of and understood within the geek sphere, it shouldn’t be. It will end up affecting geeks and non-geeks alike.
One of the major features of Web 2.0′s definition is the idea of user-generated content. Instead of big corporations or globally recognizable celebrities creating content, the user creates it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that if you’re looking for entertainment/info on the web, you’re required to make it. The idea isn’t that every user must create content, it’s that any user who is willing, can create content. For example, several years ago, you might have looked to magazines or newspapers to read editorial pieces on current trends in the media, but now you’re reading my blog instead. I’m not paid to do this, writing is not my career, I’m a regular “user” just like you.
According to Wikipedia, the term “Web 2.0″ was coined in 2003, but this idea of user-generated content is far from new. Have you ever been to a talent show? Web 2.0 is basically an online talent show . . . but it’s not just online. What was already an old concept recently became labeled “Web 2.0″ because while the idea is ancient, its worldwide popularity is very new. User-generated content has been growing in dominance over traditional, celebrity-driven media in many arenas other than the Internet. Consider reality television. Instead of watching sitcoms about quirky people and dysfunctional families, we watch realty T.V. shows that give us glimpses into the real lives of quirky people and dysfunctional families. There are no traditional stars in this this new world of media. Any average-Joe is free to enter, but few will stand out and gain recognition. Reality television is not exactly the same as Web 2.0 – it is not possible for any “user” to be part of a reality show – but they share the same spirit of average-Joe-as-star and both are part of a larger whole.
By focusing solely on the “Web 2.0″, we are fostering a misunderstanding of the scope of this thing, its causes, its possible future, and its dangers. This is way bigger than the Internet, bigger than Myspace, Wikipedia and Youtube. It may even be bigger than media. There was a time when the major social effect of new technology was to create more leisure time, but that has changed. A large amount of the new consumer technologies that have recently become mainstream have made it easier for “users” to do-it-themselves. Web 2.0 is not the revolutionary social phenomenon that we need to be studying, discussing and trying to understand, the do-it-yourself attitude is. We are moving away from a compartmentalized world, where one person entertains, one takes pictures of the show, another one writes about the show, and yet another puts the text and images into a magazine. In this current age, technology allows me to put my music together, perform it, take digital pictures, and blog about it. The do-it-yourself attitude is at the heart of Web 2.0, reality television, and the new modern gadget-packed lifestyle that many of us live. Web 2.0 is just a symptom of the evolution of our society.
As a society, we rarely come upon a sword with a single edge. As it becomes easier to be an amateur at anything, it becomes harder to find an expert at anything. This is a necessary economic consequence of the do-it-yourself revolution. Expertise doesn’t pay the way it used to. The transition is far from complete, expertise continues to grow less and less profitable. One example that is close to home for me is the effect that home studios have had on professional studios. Pro studios have been seeing a lot less business than they used to due to the abundance of cheaper home studios run by amateurs and the relative ease with which musicians can record themselves. I imagine similar effects can be seen throughout our society. Photographers lose business to digital cameras, magazines lose business to blogs, actors lose business to reality TV stars.
Ironically, as required know-how becomes watered down and distributed throughout the population, the money involved does not. Sure, some folks make money off their home studios or by selling ads on their blogs, but for the most part, the money isn’t going to the users. In the face of the do-it-yourself revolution, traditional business models are going through drastic changes. Once upon a time, the money went to the experts and the content providers, but nowadays, the big money is in infrastructure. The guy with the popular Myspace page doesn’t profit directly from his page, Myspace does. The digital camera makers are running and skipping to the bank. It doesn’t pay to be a doer, it pays to be the one enabling the doers.
Who knows what the long term effects of this will be? Perhaps in the end, there will be an increased appreciation for expertise as people come to realize that without experience and time, the proper tools don’t amount to much. Perhaps the enablers will succeed to the point where even time, experience, and dedication do little to separate the pros from the amateurs. No matter how it turns out, it seems that the people we need to watch out for are the enablers. As things are now, they are the ones that stand to gain the most from the do-it-yourself revolution, and they are the ones who are in the best position to exploit the rest of us. At what point do we call it unfair that a popular blog brings traffic to blogger.com while the person writing it is not compensated by blogger? How popular should a Myspace profile be before the individual who created it should be getting kickbacks?
I’m sure that as the industrial revolution began and picked up steam, few of the people living through it realized that they were living through such a historically significant time. I think the same is true for people alive today. As the (geek) media focuses on how the web is changing, the entire world around us is changing. Web 2.0 is not our growth, it is just a sign of our growth. Our children’s children will grow up in a world where darkrooms, publishing houses, and soap operas were never necessary. The question “who can ___?” will be replaced with “How can I ___?” We are living through a time of important social change and transformation, a time that will be clearly noted and remembered in the history books of the future. I figured that rather than wait for the experts to point it out, I’d let you know myself.