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The "Perfect Storm" of Web 2.0 Disruption

"The winds of change in the Web world have reached hurricane force right now..."

The winds of change in the Web world have reached hurricane force right now, and nowhere are they blowing more fiercely than around that epicenter of weather activity that's been labeled "Web 2.0." There, a perfect storm is brewing.

I choose the term "perfect storm" advisedly since no other phrase that I am aware of encapsulates as succinctly the crucial insight that it's a confluence of simultaneous yet quite disparate events and changes that, in my view, is driving the current turmoil. Few technology - and fewer still business - commentators seems to have lifted up their heads for long enough recently to realize that the reason they need to take "Web 2.0" very seriously indeed is that its marketeering connotations belie the reality that we are experiencing the simultaneous occurrence of events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination. Together, however, they have developed an awe-inspiring power.

Such occurrences are, by their very nature, rare. But that doesn't mean they aren't real and that they don't happen. Ask anyone in the 1,000-mile radius of the epicenter of the Asian tsumani of 2004.

Paul Graham, well-known essayist and hardly a superficial "hypester," did an interview with TechCruch recently in which he said as follows:

"To me “Web 2.0″ translates to “Web.” And Web technologies don’t appeal only to a small niche. Web-based email services have hundreds of millions of users. The network (in the broader sense of the Internet plus the phone networks) pervades everything now.

We’re pretty open about what we think makes a technology stick. We print it on T-Shirts: 'Make something people want.' If you had to reduce the recipe for a successful startup to four words, those would probably be the four."

Graham has also written, in a November 2005 essay:
"Does 'Web 2.0' mean anything more than the name of a conference yet? I don't like to admit it, but it's starting to. When people say 'Web 2.0' now, I have some idea what they mean. And the fact that I both despise the phrase and understand it is the surest proof that it has started to mean something."
Tim Berners-Lee on the other hand, has been dismissing Web 2.0 as "a piece of jargon" and pointing out - most recently in a podcast he did with IBM's developerWorks - that Web 2.0 relies on Web 1.0 technologies such as the DOM, HTML, http, SVG, web standards, and JavaScript. Which, with the deepest respect for one of the great geniuses of the late 20th century, suggests that TBL is not wholly up to speed yet with the 21st: to say that "Web 2.0" is meaningless because it relies on pre-existing technologies is surely a little like saying that "supersonic flight" is meaningless because the Wright Brothers got there first.

Berners-Lee argues that "Web 1.0" was already totally about connecting people. "It was an interactive space," he notes. "The idea of the Web as interaction between people is really what the Web is. That was what it was designed to be - as a collaborative space where people can intreract."

Now one doesn't take issue lightly with the Father of the World Wide Web, but my concern is that, in his perhaps understandable desire to do whatever he can to stop what he possibly perceives as a New Bubble, Berners-Lee is inadvertently falling into the (for him, of all people) surprising role of what Virginia Postrel calls a "stasist" - as in one who favors the static over the dynamic.

Because the real essence of "Web 2.0" - pace Berners-Lee - is not its technology so much as its opportunism, its chaos, and its exhuberance.

Dave Winer - with whom, like TBL, one takes issue somewhat reluctantly - seems to me to make the same mistake, i,e, that of dismissing "Web 2.0" on technological grounds thus missing the point that only one of the elements of "Web 2.0" is technology. Here is what Winer wrote on September 1:
"One sure sign of a bubble is the meta-ness of the excitement. How far removed from actual user experience is the euphoria? Is there any technology involved?"

Robert Scoble take the same stance as Winer, blogging just yesterday:
"The other day I was talking with a developer...and he told me about all the froth he was seeing in the Web 2.0 space. He was wondering where the people were who were paying attention to business. Profits. Customers. He pointed to a lot of the events he’s been attending lately and said 'they are frothy.'"
I wonder whether what Scoble's unnamed developer friend really meant was not so much "frothy" as "fuzzy" or "blurry." In which case he has hit the nail on the head, though perhaps not in the way that Scoble realized.

"Web 2.0" is an example of what the historian Daniel Boorstin would have called "the Fertile Verge" - "a place of encounter between something and something else." Boorstin (and here I am wholly indebted to Virginia Postrel) pinpointed such "verges" as being nothing short of the secret to American creativity.

Postrel sums up what Boorstin was saying as follows:
"A verge is not a sharp border but a frontier region: where the forest meets the prairie or the mountains meet the flatlands, where ecosystems or ideas mingle. Verges between land and sea, between civilization and wilderness, between black and white, between immigrants and natives...between state and national governments, between city and countryside - all mark the American experience."
The creativity of America, Boortsin argued - the hope of the nation - lies "in its verges, in its new mixtures and new confusions."

My point is that there is no boundary between "Web 1.0" and "Web 2.0" - just a blurry verge. And the richness of the verge lies in the cross-fertilization and new combinations they encourage.

Web 2.0 is a Boom Town, and - as Postrel points out - "Boom towns break down barriers; they mix together talent from everywhere; they challenge complacency and overturn assumptions. They are sometimes ugly and almost always stressful, but they foster invention, progress, and learning. And they let people chase their dreams."

So my view is that, unlike Asia, the tsunami of change heralded by the current storm in Web development and online business models, coming as it does together with a simultaneous revolution in the way that users are choosing to use the Web, is an unprecedented opportunity for us all. Users, content providers, Web developers, businesses of every stripe.

"Web 2.0" lends itself to totally new types of applications, and its immediacy and openness can be a powerful differentiator in existing business interactions. The trick is to get involved right now, armed with an application architecture that will carry you forward safely and profitably, wherever the "Web 2.0" whirlwind may take you.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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