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Web 2.0, Community & the Commerce Conundrum

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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 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.

26 Responses to “Web 2.0, Community & the Commerce Conundrum”

  1. boxcars

    Part of Google’s success is built on the free-flow of ideas to the extent that the ownership of them becomes unknown. Perhaps that is the greatest value of web 2.0; the proliferation of innovative ideas that provides value to everyone.

    Does it really matter if the big companies make money while doing it? We are all benefitting in one way or the other.

    The whole point of the patent offices is to publicize innovative ideas to advance society as a whole. Sure, companies race to have their patents approved and recognized for financial gains, but in the end, society benefits.

  2. I say why be sceptical or fear Web 2.0 it’s simply another wave of progress. For the little I’ve seen so far it seems like an exciting new way to relate and collaborate across the web, something we all try to do in our own lives.. I think sharing information and ideas is excellent, I tried sharing my photos on flickr a few days ago using a new concept called hubtag at it’s very simply and an idea that i think trully embraces the spirit of 2.0..

  3. Money is one thing and power is the other. As the money is carefully horded and was often created in the first place from environmentally and socially destructive activities, the site I contribute to concentrates on politics or power. Pointing out the amorality of politicians in the hope of getting rid of some of them and limiting the excesses of others. The purpose of the website is to break the strangle hold that the Cairns City Council has on information about local issues. Never once have they responded to reasonable question instead doing their business behind closed doors. So we have created bloggs to raise the issues and forums for people to have their say. is a real attempt to put the community, sharing and democrasy on the web. We would be very pleased if someone could share with us some links to similar efforts elsewhere

  4. Hey i am an active member on and they dont pay either but they’re big and pretty popular.
    on another note Looks like access of data over handheld devices will shape the future of internet.

    A source in Indian media tells me that data access over GPRS even in India is becoming mainstream.

    CNBC is capturing this- perhaps the first of its kind- on a popular show called Young Turks. My source did not tell me when this show will be broadcast, but they’re doing a major story about and it’s ceo where the ceo makes mainstream use of GPRS.

    i’m gonna find out more about when this show will be on, but the bigger picture is GPRS and a consumer site ceo!

  5. Om

    I do not think it is a black and white issue.
    I see a number of companies in the Web 2.0 sphere who offer more hype than real innovation. I do see some people coming up with very good products though (Zimbra for example).
    The dilemna between openness and setting barriers is also not simple. Personally i started screaning comments on my BLOG ‘Serge the Concierge’ after a couple people started ‘flaming’ in their notes.
    Take care

    My other BLOG

  6. Isn’t the upside a helpful service? People aren’t using Web 2.0 tools for the hope of some business upside, they’re using the tools because they are helpful at accomplishing their tasks.

    Flickr saves me time. Sure, it uses time, but I’d spend even more time managing and sharing my photos over email without flickr. saves me time. I’d have to go back and find sites I have since forgotten because I didn’t want them clogging my brower bookmarks, but they were still important.

    People wouldn’t use Web 2.0 tools of they were useless.

    What’s the business model for some of these companies is the bigger question, but in some cases there might not even need to be one. I’m sure the investors want some return on equity, but I believe has one employee. This isn’t quite reaching the Web 1.0 craziness.

  7. “So if we tag, bookmark or share, and help or Technorati or Yahoo become better commercial entities, aren’t we seemingly commoditizing our most valuable asset – time.”

    Yes, thank you. WELL said.

  8. > Will they share in their upside? Not likely!

    The purpose of many of the add ons are to save time…to make it easy for you to find information. They have to offer some value to you for them to be the tagging system you would want to use

    Building the best tagging system seems to save as mutch time as it costs, but I say this more as a tag leecher than as a person who spends hours and hours tagging.

  9. Thoughts similar to those of Nicholas was going through my mind whne I was coming across all the hype from the web 2 conference.
    So much so that the vibes coming off were almost communist. I got the feeling that they have such an overriding desire to make the web an all inclusive space that they will look at all technologies with rose tinted glasses. I’m not too enamored. Almost seems like many went ooh-aah at the collective orgasm, until reality started to dawn again.

  10. The concept of technology, in whatever form, as amoral isn’t a new one. No technology is this way or that, unless we make it so. I don’t think that’s harsh, it’s what we’re living with. Gunpowder anyone?

    What’s interesting here, and something worth pondering: who is in control? The investors, stockholders, owners, inventors, purveyors, and folks “on top” have a stake…

    The users, creators, tweakers, hackers, mashers, and pudits have what exactly? Obviously a desire to use this stuff, to embrace and extend… To DO things.

    But guess what? All business ride on our backs. Where would Apple be without the iTunes store? The iPod is pretty pricey, but kids and adults lust after them, and will beg, borrow, and steal just to get one.

    My blogging steals moments away all the time. Am I richer for it? Yes. If I felt otherwise, I’d quit. Not only will companies need to be responsible for themselves, so will users. Sharing in the upside? That IS a hippy concept…

  11. IMHO it’s not open unless I can run my own… I suspect, or at least hope, that the next wave of these apps will be more distributed, so that I run my own picture/bookmark/etc server that will network with others’ to collectively result in something like flikr or or livejournal or whatever… by federating with others, I probably do my share by caching popular content in order to spread the load, and know that if/when my content is popular, the same ad-hoc cache will keep my pipe from clogging.

  12. nosuchname

    an interesting calculation will be time (at min. wage) and broadband costs (subsidized or direct) calculated per “participation” or skype/wiki/…. event. i dont think it will be far off from “web 1.0” or for that matter any commercial entity that will put up and charge. the so-called “community” does not put a price on their 2am net.vigils, chalking it up to their love of the community/participation/social responsibility. when someone else is going to concentrate that silent pool of dollars and make millions, the community better start billing itself – a simple ‘surf-meter’ on their PCs or macs will suffice –

  13. This is all very interesting, however, there are many of us who do not buy into this Web 2.0 concept as a “religion”. They are tools.

    For example:

    1. I use Wikipedia articles for its external links and for some quick “facts”. For example, the other day, on TV, I heard the reporter state: “Edward Murrow died at a young age.” Okay, how young? So, I went to Wikipedia and in seconds I knew.

    2. is a great product (I use Yahoo’s MyWeb). I don’t use it for a community affair. I use it as my “memory.” Now I can easily find/search for my saved sites. By the way, I switched to Yahoo’s MyWeb because it will search on descriptions as well as tags.

    3. It’s obvious a controlled, edited environment produces better results. The other day I was going to use Flickr photos of “Lewis and Clark” in a presentation. There were many photos, however, it wasn’t an ordered collection.

    While these sites are incredible, we the people need to be good editors.