More on Web 2.0 Expo

My previous post summarized Clay Shirky’s presentation, which was definitely one of the highlights. What follows here are my overall impressions of the conference.

When I attended techpresident’s PDF2008, I called it “technopoligeek culture,” remarking on the utopian nature of it all. Well, if that was utopia, I have no idea what Web 2.0 Expo was — utopia on steroids.

What was most striking about the proceedings was the contrast between the subject matter, and what was being said. Here is “web 2.0,” the hottest technology around, and, for the most part, what I heard was the same language I heard 14 years ago, when I went to school for an MBA. I heard things this week like “do things that matter” (Tim O’Reilly) and “brand is important” (Gary Vayerhchuk of winelibrary.com) and “business is about customer connections” (Deborah Schultz). I was told businesses should “grow slowly,” and they should “know their market.”

Um, yes. That’s all textbook.

That said, some of the speakers were quite good. I was impressed with Jason Fried, of 37signals.com, who advised *not* doing everything your customers asked, and avoiding scope creep and bloat at all costs — in a nutshell, know how to tell your customers, “no.” In an age of the ever-expanding Office Suite, that’s good advice. I also thought Joshua Schachter, who started delicious, made an interesting point when he said he purposely designed his system to not encourage or allow users to communication with each other. While he’s not sure whether or not it’s a good idea, it’s an interesting premise in the everything-connected age of Web 2.0

But, especially on the first day, those were the exceptions. The conference, which is primarily geared to web start-ups and developers, was mostly an exercise in crass entrepreneurial capitalism. And the king of New York’s entrepreneurial scene is Fred Wilson. He’s a venture capitalist who’s essentially built the NYC tech scene, and his talk was a celebration of the industry he’s help build, lots of stats about how many start-ups this and that…

For all the business-minded utopia at work in the Javits Center this week, for all that I heard about how Web 2.0 is going to change the world, or has already changed the world, what I didn’t hear was a new business model. What I did hear was the same model that appeared in the late 1990s tech bubble: Build a site, get an audience, sell company to a large media conglomerate. Today, with Web 2.0, that formula has shifted slightly: Build a shell of a site, get users to fill in all the content, sell company to a large media conglomerate.

For all the talk I heard, I saw nothing new, really. It’s a bubble in formation, a wannabe bubble in the making, nothing new except in the world of Web 2.0, your users do all your work for you.

I should add here, lest I be accused of communistic tendencies, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with making money. My particular concern is that we need to have public spaces for discourse, spaces free of commericial interests, spaces where what we say and think aren’t open to data mining and marketing ploys and crass entrepenuerial capitalism.

And nothing I heard this week at Web 2.0 Expo lessened that concern in the least bit.

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