I’ve spent the last couple of days at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, which is bubbling with optimism, ideas, and venture capitalists in a way I haven’t seen since 1999. Walking the halls of the sometimes-steamy, crowded conference, one catches snippets of conversation about start-ups, bubbles, and valuations. And, of course, acquisitions.
It’s clear, though, that something real is happening in the world to spur all the excitement. Media consumption today — especially among the tech geeks assembled here on the West Coast — is dramatically different than it was just a few years ago. People here casually trade tips about favorite RSS readers (and favorite mobile RSS readers). Eventually, the masses are likely to adopt similar consumption patterns.
Needless to say, media now goes hand-in-hand with technology, and the embrace of new technology — by publishers (in the broadest sense of that word), intermediaries and consumers — is changing what it means to be an ad-supported content vehicle. What do media and advertising look like in a next-generation Web? Are we really seeing a new version, or just an incremental upgrade?
Let me share a couple of themes from the conference.
Aggregation and Disaggregation
Technologies such as RSS and Web services are pulling media properties apart into their component parts. In a digital world, they’re just databases full of text, graphics, and multi-media elements. Using things like RSS feeds and Google Maps-style APIs, the bits can then be spread to the four winds and later assembled in any way imaginable. One example that’s gotten a lot of attention is HousingMaps.com, which combines Google Maps and Craigslist listings.
This week, we covered news of fashion site Glam.com, a Silicon Valley content/e-commerce start-up, integrating itself with a network of blogs. It’s distributing its content to the blog network, and bringing the blog content into its own site. It’s all modular. Meanwhile, Topix.net is packaging its headlines and placing them at the bottom of publishers’ news articles. Sites like Indeed, Oodle and Simply Hired are taking classifieds-style ad modules and aggregating them, trying to distinguish themselves by the services they offer — and trying to convince advertisers there’s value in highlighting their listings.
Because systems like Google’s AdSense are also modular, they work well in this type of aggregation/disaggregation scenario. (There’s a reason three out of four search start-ups in one session ‘fessed up that Google AdSense was their primary source of revenue.) One can slap Google or Yahoo Search Marketing text ads on an RSS feed, for example.
The Topix.net or Glam.com model is a little more complicated. Both have developed systems whereby each player in the ecosystem gets a cut of the ad revenue generated. More and more of these revenue-distribution models must be developed so everyone in the value chain is compensated appropriately. The content bits have value just as the mash-ups and services have value.
Then, there’s wildly disaggregated viral content that eludes any sort of organized ecosystem. In one discussion this week, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures mentioned the extraordinary amount of views received by comedian Jon Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s Crossfire. Yet neither CNN nor Jon Stewart profited from the opportunity. Couldn’t ads be embedded, or somehow inextricably connected with the content, he asked? Good question.
If there was an overarching theme of the conference, it was user-generated content. All hail the power of the masses. Yahoo CEO Terry Semel said he expects certain content areas on the portal — travel, for example — to be dominated by user-generated content. He described a scenario in which someone took a trip to Italy and returned to post pictures and a description of the vacation. There’s no need for a definitive, professional edited version of the trip to Italy. A thousand flowers can, and should bloom. (It’s just this kind of attitude, of course, that led Yahoo to pay $3.6 billion for GeoCities.)
Though InteractiveCorp’s Barry Diller has been slammed for dismissing user-generated content in his talk here, I must agree with his point. If you think of content, as he does, as a 30-minute TV program or as a feature-length film, it’s unlikely — even with the democratization of production technology — the man on the street will have the talent, or the inclination, to roll his own.
“There’s not that much talent in the world,” said Diller.
The issue of inclination may begin to appear in other areas of consumer-generated media, too. While I wholeheartedly believe in the power of the masses, why should I bother to review restaurants or plumbers, or tag pictures or blog entries? What’s in it for me? Two “user-generated” search engines, Rollyo and Wink, launched here at Web 2.0, but they’ve got an uphill battle to get people to participate and create value. Companies like Yahoo, InsiderPages and Judy’s Book incentivize people to write reviews. That seems to make sense. The lesson? While thousands and millions of people working together can create something fantastic, they won’t create unless there’s a good reason to.
The Next Generation?
Is this really a media and advertising revolution? In some ways, no. These ideas have been tossed around for years without much refinement. But in other ways, we’re on the verge of something new simply because aggregation/disaggregation and user-generated content are now actually becoming incorporated into media models. Companies like Yahoo, which have at least proven they understand Web 1.0, are buying up players like Flickr and trying to create value for advertisers. Others, like America Online and Glam.com, are incorporating blogs into their DNA. Still others, like Topix.net, are teaching traditional partners such as Knight Ridder, Tribune Company and Gannett how to think outside the walled garden.
It’s all really happening now. There’s still plenty of work to do, but it’s OK to get excited.