Web 2.0’s role in economic crisis

May 11, 2009

I think the pundits have it all wrong. It wasn’t just the bad mortgages that brought about the seizure and near-collapse in the US. economic system. It was – and is – Web 2.0.

Yup. That’s the conclusion I’m drawing, after reading The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture by Andrew Keen (link to newer edition). As you can tell by the title of this earlier edition, Keen’s premise is not really an economic one, though it is about what he sees as the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our nation and culture brought about by Web 2.0.

What he points out – in a book that was published in 2007 – a year before the big economic meltdown – is that the free and freewheeling nature of Web 2.0 means that  anyone can create content. That means the death of the “expert” – which in turn, is really the death of many many experts. And entire industries.

Let’s look at the media. The massive layoffs and closures of large city newspapers, to a great extent, can be attributed to the growth of online media. To cite one example from Keen: Craigslist, which at the time of Keen’s writing, employed just 22 people, is essentially a free online classified ad service. But Keen points out – it is not free. It has cost us all. Each “free” ad takes money away from a local newspaper, and eventually, it takes away jobs. A San Francisco Chronicle VP believes Craigslist single-handedly depletes the Chronicle and other Bay newspapers of $50 million a year. Multiply that across the country for all the other large and small cities, consider that advertising revenue is a major part of the income needed for newspaper operations, and it is easy to see the domino effect of just one website – and a mere 22 people – upon the economy. In 2006, nearly 18,000 people lost jobs in print journalism.

And that is only one example. Granted, I’m not “blaming” Craigslist, nor do I dare to propose or suggest that it is single-handedly responsible for all of those job losses. That would be ridiculous. The point that Keen makes, is that job losses in the “real world” are not being replaced with job creation in Web 2.0. The 22 people of Craigslist stand in for thousands of people who worked in advertising at newspapers all throughout the country. Because ad revenues are down, that creates layoffs in the news department. And on it goes.

The example can be multiplied across any of the media formats – TV, radio, bookstores. Increasingly, these industries are losing jobs at a frantic pace. And “replaced” by virtual megastores, like Amazon.com, or user content like You Tube. User content sites like You Tube, obviously, won’t hire as many people as the movie industry in Hollywood or the news and cable stations throughout the country.

It’s easy to say “so what” if newspapers fail, or the millionaire Hollywood big shots and movie stars feel a little economic pinch. But all of these industries are made up of many many ordinary people. From the “go-fer” on the sound stage to the subscription order taker at the newspaper and many many others. Their jobs – if they still have them – remain at risk.

Keen worries that the proliferation of content by amateurs (I include myself in that group) not only “dumbs down” our culture, but may in fact threaten our democracy itself. Who, Keen asks, will do the hard-hitting and important investigative journalism that brought about Watergate, or any of the other major important news stories that help maintain and uphold the Constitution? Does any single blogger have the clout, skills, knowledge or power to do this? It is only businesses and industries that have this capacity.

I don’t entirely hold to all of Keen’s premises, but I do believe that much of what he writes about the economic consequences of Web 2.0 is very real – with frightening consequences.

Keen’s book now is available in a new edition, which I haven’t read, but it looks like it could provide some additional insights, judging from the subtitle, which explicitly includes the economy as one consequence of Web 2.0.

© writingreading, 2009


A Unified Theory of the Web, & the World

August 6, 2008

Recently, I read Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger. I don’t read tech stuff, or even technology and culture type books, hardly ever, but when I started blogging a few months ago, this title seemed particularly apt. Partly because it fits with the idea of a blog – each post being a “small piece” – “loosely joined” by theme on my blog – and likewise, it would apply to the blogosphere and web, by extension.

I found his book to be not only highly readable, but insightful and entertaining as well. An example of the latter and his sense of humor: spam is “annoyance marketing”.

He studies the web as a communication medium, and among other things, feels that the web is primarily a written universe. Not just written computer code, but written words. Contrary to Luddites’ views of the web being the death of literacy, Weinberger makes a convincing case that to the contrary, the web enables people to communicate. Not only that, but it enables them to communicate with people with shared common interests, regardless of geography, economic or social class, or other barriers that exist in the “real” world. The vision that Weinberger concludes with is a blissful universe made possible by the passion and self-fulfillment born of shared interests. He says it allows us all to connect with our truest nature.

“Everyone’s an expert” is another benefit to the web. We learn how to discern reliable voices through their persistence and the advice they give, like regular contributors to newsgroups and forums. So if in my off-time I enjoy helping others learn to navigate the new digital universe, I need not work for Microsoft or some other large software corporation – I can simply make my contributions through the web’s own forums.

One of the biggest points Weinberger makes is the social nature of the web. When this book was published in 2002, blogs were out there, but I don’t think they were quite the big thing they’ve become over the past few years. (I could be wrong about this, being new to the blogosphere myself), but I find much of what he talks about to be very applicable to what is called today “Web 2.0” – with Facebook, myspace, and others.

Weinberger’s commentary ultimately goes beyond the Web, however. Because the Internet is so much a part of our daily life, much of what he writes about the Web is equally true about the World. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web – is really a Unified Theory of the World, too. The case he makes is a promising one, full of optimism and hope.

© writingreading, 2008