Agile Computing Authors: Liz McMillan, Zakia Bouachraoui, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Maria C. Horton

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The Common Culture Root of Web 2.0 and Barack Obama

What is the reason for this Obama phenomenon? Why is it happening right now, at this moment of history?

Is it because of his eloquent speeches? Is it because people in this country are so tired of the current reality that they want to depart from it as far as possible? Is it because of some of the strategic mistakes that Hillary made?

As a web 2.0 guy who blogs on “Direct from Web 2.0” , I did not see this coming. In fact, my preferences are Mitt Romney from the republican side (maybe McCain too) and Hillary Clinton from the democrat side. I think the three of them (Mitt Romney, John McCain and Hillary Clinton) will do better in the oval office than other candidates. Just like how venture capitalists pick CEOs for their portfolio companies, I put “experience” and “track record of execution” very high in my assessment. If you are conducting a CEO search for your company, would you pick someone who just graduated from Harvard executive MBA, or someone who has been there, done that and has been doing that for the entire life?

Oh well, I must admit my own failure of not seeing this Obama phenomenon coming at all. I didn’t expect Obama to be taken seriously. Just a little while ago, very few have heard of Obama and ever fewer took him seriously. In a very short time window, this new young “kid” (comparing to other candidates), rose to be the front runner with millions of enthusiastic young followers. Given the brand name of Hillary, who would have even considered Obama to be a serious contender? Did anyone ever take Al Sharpton seriously in 2004? With a rock star like status, Obama could well be on the way to become the first black president in history. Even if Obama eventually ends up not winning the presidency, what he has achieved so far is already a wild success.

So what is the reason for this Obama phenomenon? Why is it happening now, not ten years ago or four years ago, but at this particular moment of history?

On the other side, if you take a look at Web 2.0, doesn’t the Obama story remind us of something? Ajax came out from nowhere and took the developer world like a wildfire. Rich Internet Application (RIA) is becoming the de facto way of writing applications within just a couple of years, defying the existing establishments that have dominated the world of programming for decades. FaceBook, MySpace, YouTube, etc. and the other many Web 2.0 startups, typically started by some young inexperienced kids that nobody has heard of, suddenly became the center of our digital life. Time magazine’s “Person of 2006” is “You”. This “web 2.0” phenomenon is also taking our world by storm.

Likewise, similar questions can be asked: What is the reason for this “Web 2.0” phenomenon? Why now?

Granted, there are a lot of “reasons”. They haven been well articulated in the press, articles, books and the blogsphere (for example, see CBSNews: How Obama Became The Man To Beat ). There is no need for me to repeat them here. But I believe there is more. I think there is something much deeper. I think there is something deeper in our society and our culture that has yet to be said for enabling this kind of phenomena.

On the surface, the Web 2.0 phenomenon and the Obama phenomenon are unrelated. They seem to be unrelated events in two separate fields. However, deep down, they are both results of something deeper in our current culture and society. Our civilization and society have evolved into an era that is distinctly different from anything that the human kind has had before. This era is best characterized by its culture. It is something that I don’t know how to clearly articulate besides putting a vague term “the iGen Culture” (Internet Generation) to refer to it.

Let’s look at the characteristics and principles of this iGen culture by comparing the Obama phenomenon and the Web 2.0 phenomenon.

  1. Connecting With People: A big part of Web 2.0 is about connecting people. Other things such as novelty of the idea, engineering ingenuity, and technology breakthrough etc. are secondary. “Users” (the millions of consumers for example) make or break a web 2.0 company. Before Web 2.0, people connected and communicated just fine. However, the iGen culture elevated “connecting with people” to such a status that we value a social network like FaceBook, useful but not sure how useful, at a staggering $15B valuation, three years after it was founded.In the presidential race, Hilary kept pounding on her track record, experience and issues/positions. –Isn’t that presidential candidates should do? However, the secret here is that “connecting with people” is far more important in this era. Obama did really well here by putting “connecting with people” at the front and center of his attention. He connects with people by talking about his father being from Kenya, and his wife shopping at Target, etc. He turns his own “inexperience” into a positive thing by positioning himself as just one of “you”.
  2. Popularity First, Everything Else LaterIn the Web 2.0 world, it is a winning strategy for “a startup to focus on pursuing millions of users first, and worry about business model later”. Business model is obviously the No.1 concern for any business, but it is OK to come later in the web 2.0 world. There are so many examples: FaceBook, YouTube, Google, MySpace, Skype… that have proven this time and time again.In a presidential race, you would expect things like issues, positions, track record, etc as the key factors influencing voter decisions. Nope. “Popularity” is the key in this iGen culture. Whether a candidate is liked by voters weighs much more than other factors. Of course, we all logically know that “likeability! = capability”. However, human beings are genetically programmed to “vote” for what their hearts felt instead of what their heads tell them. Though during the human history so far, “likeability” has always been overshadowed by some other harsh realities that forced voters to use their heads a little more. For example, even in some other countries today, if you don’t vote for a particular candidate that you don’t like, you could get shot.In this iGen culture, if you have popularity, you have the basis for getting other things that you desire. High school students are far more interested in Clay Atkins than Einstein. Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears always have ways to dominate the media. Though it still puzzles me why thousands of people would be so hooked onto watching the mundane details of some guy’s daily life broadcasted over the web.
  3. User Experience Is The DifferentiatorThe rise of Web 2.0 reflects what consumers nowadays are looking for: a better experience. GoogleMap won over Web 1.0’s MapQuest because of better user experience. Google Search won the “search” market because of its user experience. Ajax as a web development technique for delivering rich web experience has been available for more than ten years. It never caught people’s attention during Web 1.0. At the time, we were consumed in getting onto the web. However, once everyone is on the web, user experience becomes the differentiator. Suddenly Ajax was “discovered” and spread like a wildfire .


    iPhone: User Experience Is The Differentiator.

    Obama excels at delivering a “great user experience” from his speeches. If you listen to him talk, it’s all about being uplifting and inspiring. The “user experience” from Obama talks is undoubtedly better than any other candidates. Though the content of his talks are not necessarily better or has more substance than others, his talks make the audience feel good. In the iGen culture, we value “a good user experience” higher than other attributes. As human beings, we are programmed to pursue uplifted and inspired mental states. In a presidential race, though voters should be looking at issues/positions/track record etc, we as human beings don’t really care about these as long as we feel good.

  4. Don’t Be BoringFor the first time, “attention” is the rare commodity for the majority of the people in our society. Yet as individuals, we are psychologically hungry for “attention”. We register ourselves onto all different kinds of social networks and compete on the number of “virtual friends” we have. We carry mobile phones with us on a 24X7 basis, and yet, we have to set up instant messengers and Skye accounts to feel connected. Instant gratification is readily available in everywhere and yet we constantly search for the next instant gratification.The iGen culture hates to be bored and ignores anything that sounds boring. We have gone through so many presidential elections that yet another one is just boring. However, Obama is different. He is almost everything that a serious president candidate would have wanted to avoid in previous elections. But he is not boring and our attention goes to him.
  5. Change is More Important Than Experience (Change vs. Experience)The web 2.0 world has shown time and time again that “change” rather than “experience” builds success. FaceBook, MySpace, YouTube etc are all built by young and inexperienced young “kids”. Some of them didn’t even graduate from college.In this presidential race, there has been a battle of change vs. experience. Though it is logical to think that “strong experience” is required to be able to deliver “changes” successfully, “experience” doesn’t really matter too much in the iGen culture. If you compare the “experience” side of Obama and Hilary, Hilary clearly wins. In any other time in history, it is hard to think someone as inexperienced as Obama would be taken seriously. However, this is the culture that we value change more than experience.
  6. “You Don’t Have To Know What You Are Doing, As Long As You Have The Capability And The Willingness To Try Hard”“Just go ahead and do it. Figure it out along the way” is fairly common in the Web 2.0 world. The most famous example is Evan Williams , the founder of Blogger and Twitter. Evan set out to build some different software, and set up Blogger to help the team coordinating their effort in building that software. Along the way, Evan figured out that Blogger is actually more useful, and then he ditched the original idea and went for Blogger, which was eventually acquired by Google. Evan believes in this so strongly that he founded “Obvious” , with the mission to “create interesting things that matter to the world” by productizing the “stumble upon” process. Obvious is obviously successful so far. Twitter, the “third most exciting silicon valley company in 2007”, is a result of “Obvious” In a presidential race, this iGen culture principle applies as well. In this culture, people are more willing to take risk on “new” people and “new” ideas, overlooking the “experience” side, and without necessarily knowing exactly what the “new” stuff is. The Obama effect is a direct result of this culture characteristic.

The above list brings a natural question: weren’t these principles important in previous presidential elections? For example, wasn’t popularity important before? Wasn’t “don’t be boring” important before? For the point that experience is valued less than “change”, weren’t there examples that young, inexperienced people built success long before Web 2.0? For example, Bill Gates founded Microsoft while he was in early twenties without graduating from college. So how is this different from twenty years ago? What is different now that makes the “the iGen culture” new?

There is no doubt that a lot of the above principles were important before as well. However, the relative importance of them comparing to other factors is different. For example, during the great depression, “economy” would obviously be valued more than a candidate’s capability to “connect with people”. It took Bill Gates 16 years (Microsoft was founded in 1975) to reach a $15B market capitalization (October 1991). The iGen culture enabled FaceBook to reach a $15 billion valuation within only three years since its founding in 2004.

Would it possible for a black candidate, who is so inexperienced, to reach this rock star status in mainstream politics, in any other time in the history before? No. The Obama phenomenon happening right now at the moment of history is not accidental. It is a result of something very new in our history. Likewise, the Web 2.0 phenomenon happening right now at this particular moment is not accidental either. It couldn’t have happened a few years ago when most people were just trying to getting onto the web. Things like “connecting with people”, “popularity” and “user experience” can only become relevant until web 1.0 ushered the Web into our life. We are in a new era in our history.

What is unique about this era that enabled this era to become a new era?

  1. The Society Largely Operates In The Mode Of “Incremental Improvements” Instead Of “Breakthroughs”The end of the cold war eliminated the possibility of major wars. The country has been in prosperity in general. Though people showed dissatisfaction about the recent administration and are looking for changes, people are not looking for a major revolution. Instead, people are looking for ways to improve the existing ways of life, do to things “faster, better and cheaper”. In such a macro-climate, “nice to have” is getting adopted. A lot of Web 2.0 offerings are “nice to have” instead of “must have”. We can live without them, but they do make our life better. We flock to these web 2.0 offerings.Further, the society is in an age pursuing “incremental improvements” instead of “ground breaking innovations”. Einstein has built the relativity theory. We have been to the moon. The basic infrastructures are largely in place, ranging from the physical infrastructure such as the inter-state highway system, airports, building and bridges to the digital infrastructure such as the Internet, web, computers and broadband. Until the next major science/technology breakthrough, the society is operating in a mode of making these existing systems work better, more efficient and more cost effective. This is the foundation upon which what pundits call as “experience economy” is based. It is the “user experience” that differentiates product/services.
  2. The Society Is More Capable Of Taking Risks And Wants To Experiment With Something NewBeing the only superpower without major global war threats, and the general prosperity of the society give the population more confidence and willingness to take some risks and embrace new things. The level of willingness to embrace something new is unprecedented as shown in the Obama phenomenon that a relatively inexperienced black candidate would stimulate so much mainstream enthusiasm.This attitude of willingness to experiment is also clearly seen by a lot of web 2.0 companies that start with building popularity without a business model. In contrast, it was traditionally difficult to raising financing from venture capitalists unless the product/service is a “must have” and there is a solid business model for it. Nowadays VCs are fine without a business model. They know if your product/service is adopted by millions of people, there will be ways to monetize it.We hate getting bored, and we have the capacity to deal with failures. So we are happy to try new things, and we know it is OK if new things don’t work out.
  3. We Are The First “Fully Connected” Society In HistoryThe digital infrastructure gives us a lot of things at our fingertips. We have the means to get instant information as well as instant gratification. Because we are so connected and we have many options to get instant gratification, anything that sounds boring will not get our attention. The difficulty of getting attention makes each of us hungry for attention. We feel we are not connected enough. People try various means to get other people’s attention. Popularity does not only make one feel good. This connected infrastructure also enables means to cash in on popularity.

    The digital infrastructure is transformational beyond technological and economical aspects. It transforms our culture, the iGen culture .

Acknowldgement: Thank Robert Bufffone for stimulating discussions around this subject.

Read the original blog entry...

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