In a recent "New York Times" article, Jonathan Schwartz, president and COO at Sun Microsystems, was quoted as saying, "We are now entering the participation age.... The endpoints are starting to inform the center." Schwartz is correct, but a limiting factor in making his observation a reality is today's tools and applications were designed for a command-and-control age, when publishers controlled production and distribution.
In the participation age, distinctions fade between creating and consuming, reading and writing, applications and mash-ups, centralized and distributed content. The world just looks different. We need a new breed of tools and services that will facilitate easy, fun, and social content creation.
When my friend Katie Burke Mitic, the original product manager at Four11 (now Yahoo Mail), conducted market research for Web mail in 1996, the results came back with a giant thud. Nobody said he wanted it because nobody knew he needed it. I remember the first time I tried to explain how powerful email was to my parents in the early '80s. I got blank stares. What's wrong with writing letters? Can't we just use phones or faxes for that?
So it goes with many new tools and technologies. You may not know you need them, but once you try them, you wonder how you ever managed without them. Witness the Web as another case in point.
The participation age has been sneaking up on us in many guises for quite some time. The "read-write Web" is the next big leap in functionality. Not only will it make it easier for people to participate in the continuous contributions that are the World Wide Web, but it will actually change the way we look at the Web as a medium.
The read-write Web is geek-speak for a way to use the Web in which you both read and write using the same applications. Wikis are examples of the read-write Web. Wikipedia is perhaps the most successful of them all. Millions of readers, thousands of writers. Anyone can write or edit an article on Wikipedia. It's like one giant, social, living repository of documents containing incredible amounts of user-generated knowledge and information.
An even better example is out there. If you want to see the future of the Web, look no further than your email inbox. What I love about email is I can read and write in the same application. I get an email, add my two cents, and with one click forward it to my wife, friends, or colleagues. They add their comments, and on it goes. E-mail is the Internet's killer app because it lets us write just as easily as we read. There are no sharing limits to email. One or two clicks, and whatever you're looking at has traveled around town or around the world with your comments, pithy or pedantic, included.
I recently discussed sharing in a column. I said successful publishers and content creators must learn to embrace sharing. Online business models that don't provide their own flavors of sharing are toast. Sometimes, people tell me (especially older people), "I don't like to share. I've seen all those sharing sites, but I don't see any reason to participate." I ask them about the "forward" button in their email programs. Do they ever use it? Of course they do. If people don't share on the Web, it's because its too hard to do, not because they don't want to. That's like saying people don't want to use Web mail because they have a mail program on their desktop at work.
Almost everyone who uses the Internet use email. And almost everyone who uses email shares. The next big thing on the Web will arrive when read-write becomes as easy, ubiquitous, fun, and inevitable as it is in email. Get ready for your Web pages to be read, written, and shared -- with no control.
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Hans Peter BrØndmo has spent his career at the intersection of technological innovation and consumer empowerment. He is a successful serial entrepreneur and a recognized thought leader. His latest company, Plum, is a consumer service with big plans to make the Web easier to use. In 1996, he founded pioneering e-mail marketing company Post Communications. His recent book, "The Engaged Customer," is a national bestseller and widely recognized as the bible of e-mail relationship marketing. As a sought-after keynote speaker, he has addressed more than 50 conferences in the past three years, is often featured in national media, and has been invited to testify at two U.S. Senate hearings and an FCC hearing on Internet privacy and spam. Hans Peter is on the board of the online privacy certification and seal program of TRUSTe and several companies. He performed his undergraduate and graduate studies at MIT.
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