Unless you have been hanging out in the back alleys of Internet geek-dom chances are you have never heard the term "Web 2.0." It's a phrase that has caused much confusion outside geek circles and significant debate within them. And it plays a critical part in the growing digital economy.
When someone uses the term Web 2.0, he generally is referring to a growing number of new websites and tools including things like blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networks (e.g., MySpace), and video sharing (e.g., YouTube). These tools are making it easier to create and publish content. Video on the web, for example, has been around for more than several years. But YouTube - today's largest video sharing site (recently bought by Google) - made uploading and embedding video clips simple enough for people with limited technical skills. As a result, there has been an explosion of media on the web in the form of text, audio, and visual content.
Chris Anderson, the Editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail, believes the digital era propelled by Web 2.0 will lead to the decline of the commercial hit in popular culture. Part of his thesis, which unfolded on his blog during the writing of his book, is that with infinite choice enabled by a digital economy, consumers move towards niches that suit their specific needs and interests. Anderson argues that popular culture and the blockbuster hit were outgrowths of urbanization and broadcast media and are relatively new phenomena in history. In a "long tail" world, media tastes will no longer be based on the broadcast model but on the peer-to-peer nature of the Internet.
Anderson has his critics. Andrew Keen is a long-time Silicon Valley entrepreneur and intellectual. He has debated Anderson and is writing a book that will in many ways be a response to The Long Tail. Keen is not just skeptical about the Web 2.0 movement, he is downright against it. In a piece for The Weekly Standard he writes:
Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural "flattening." No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion--Socrates's nightmare.
While not weighing in specifically on Web 2.0, blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds -- best know as Instapundit - likens these technologies to a slingshot. In his book An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and other Goliaths, Reynolds says that the Davids -- the bloggers, video "directors", and garage bands -- have the ability to challenge established players. But fleshing out Reynolds' analogy yields a key distinction: technology is an enabler, it does not guarantee success. It does not guarantee popularity or the capability to take down society's Goliaths. Just because someone has a blog, does not mean it will be read. The Davids must know how to properly wield the slingshot. Not all possess those skills.
The success of Reynolds and others like him suggest that even with the explosion of new content, the best talent can still rise to the top. There are ways to identify quality over the "flat noise of opinion." The web, for example, has a simple form of currency - the link. If a hundred bloggers or websites link to a post by Reynolds, it increases the likelihood that others will view his content. His blog, in effect, becomes a more authoritative source of news and opinion.
The link is just one way to separate the signal from the noise. Thankfully, it alone does not dictate the talented, less it yield a means of digital populism and a true democratization of taste. Not all links are created equally. A link from Joe Blogger, for example, does not carry the same weight in search engine algorithms as one from the New York Times or ABC News. Thus, just as in more traditional arenas of media and society, multiple levels of metrics and filtering help not only recognize the popular but the talented.
Of course, algorithmic filtering is not flawless. But combining technological advancements with human expertise in more controlled environments (e.g., a history professor or a classically trained musician identifying intelligent analysis or creative works) can even further ensure the Internet and other digital havens do not become high school voting contests or French Revolutionary mobs.
Many blogs once existed in obscurity but became definitive destinations for information and punditry due to metrics and filtering. That sort of evolution doesn't occur solely in the 'blogosphere' either. YouTube has seen similar developments. One of the best examples is with recent college grads Luke Barats and Joe Bereta. Barats and Bereta previously won the Brickwall Amateur Comedy Competition and their video clips generated an enormous response on YouTube, with reports of 1 million views. Based on their success, they were recently signed to a 1-year deal with NBC to develop low-cost sitcoms and sketches.
In the introduction to Technopoly, Neil Postman recounts a Socratic tale about King Thamus and the god Theuth. King Thamus was skeptical to the art of writing, claiming, "Those who acquire it [writing] will cease to exercise their memory...[a]nd because they are filled with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society." Postman makes an important observation about this legend:
Thamus' error is in his believing that writing will be a burden to society and nothing but a burden...[e]very technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.
Web 2.0 and other digital technologies do not represent the apex of human society - a world of infinite choice, absolute personaliztion, and no waste. Neither are they the harbingers of the utter demise of all that is good in culture. A digital culture does not exclude the possibilities for the rise of the Van Goghs, Mozarts, and Hitchcocks of the world. But it does present a new way of how they might be discovered.