Web 2.0, Community & the Commerce Conundrum

Nicholas Carr has an uncanny ability of saying things that manage to upset many, if not most people. His original essay, IT Doesn’t Matter, managed to get under the skin of Silicon Valley insiders, who tried to dismiss him with a flick of their collective wrists. And now in his latest polemic, The amorality of Web 2.0, he tries to prick the Web 2.0 balloon, and takes a scythe at some of the principles of community, sharing and what not, that are at the center of the recent excitement in Silicon Valley.

The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity.

His ire is directed at some of the Wired magazine stories, Wikipedia and the culture of participation. He denounces the religious fervor of the free wheeling Web 2.0 crowd, though I see the sweet irony in his fanatical dismissal of all that is Web 2.0.

Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening. Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It’s a set of technologies – a machine, not a Machine – that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad.

Those are tough words, but they are also very true. Especially in the light of recent events like eBay’s unilateral decision to use PayPal as its only payments processor and Craigslist’s decision to ban Oodle. Yannick Laclau writes:

It’s interesting to see two major players who have built their businesses on the basis of a community-friendly, even hippy and anti-corporate image, would so openly appear to be circling the wagons in such a business-minded reflexive way. …. In the early days, when all is new and in beta and people are blind by the tech-love of seeing innovative stuff, these issues are for the most part ignored. But as we start to see sizable traffic and revenue patterns fluctuate, many existing players might feel that being “open” is rather little more than an invitation for a competitor to steal their lunch.

Jeff Nolan, in his essay today, very eloquently argues this point that in the end, the companies have to be responsible for themselves.

I have been thinking about this aspect for a while. In a conversation with Pip Coburn, the fabulous technology strategist who recently left UBS to start his own company, Coburn Ventures, I did bring up some of these issues. I wondered out loud, if this culture of participation was seemingly help build businesses on our collective backs. So if we tag, bookmark or share, and help del.icio.us or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time. We become the outsourced workforce, the collective, though it is still unclear what is the pay-off. While we may (or may not) gain something from the collective efforts, the odds are whatever “the collective efforts” are, they are going to boost the economic value of those entities. Will they share in their upside? Not likely!

Take Skype as an example – it rides on our broadband pipes, for which we a hefty monthly charge. It uses our computers and pipes to replace a network that cost phone companies billions to build. In exchange we can make free phone calls to other Skype users. I have no problems with that. I had no problems with Skype charging me for SkypeIN and SkypeOUT calls as well, for this was only a premium service only to be used if and when needed.

However, now that it is part of eBay, I do cringe a little. After all, as Yannick pointed out, that when it comes to protecting its interests, eBay is watching out for itself. These are difficult issues, and I don’t have answers. I am sure, each one of you has something to say. It is something we need to discuss. And once again, Carr has got us thinking about things we don’t want to think about.