Who Will You Listen To?

What is the role of an authoritative voice in the information cornucopia we call the Internet? Are authoritative sources still authoritative? More channels and more sources of information exist than ever. Who do you listen to? Equally important, who listens to you?

The Web is a living, dynamic, constantly changing place. In a recent “Wired” article, Kevin Kelly claims a new blog comes online every two seconds. OK, so most of them are probably teenagers sharing their post-modern angst or entirely normal people talking about entirely normal things. But if a new blog lights up every two seconds, that would be 30 every minute, 1,800 every hour, and 43,200 each day. There must be new, interesting, cool, or at least funny ideas emerging out there all the time.

A couple weeks ago, I spent some time at the Web 2.0 conference. Though the premium content required registration (in other words, you had to pay big bucks to attend the panels), the rest was open. To his credit, and true to the openness philosophy he advocates, Tim O’Reilly left the event floor in a swanky San Francisco hotel pretty accessible to us mere walk-ins. The conference had good energy. And though I’m not a big fan of the Web 2.0 label, consensus was the Web is evolving faster than ever and attendees were there to help that evolution along. But evolving where and into what? That, of course, is the million-dollar question.

Most of the new consumer Web applications I’ve seen — and a plethora of them have increasingly silly names, such as Ning, Rollyo, and Jeteye — are uneventful and uninspiring. The hot thing to do is out-Google Google by building a better flavor of search with a user experience that looks just like… yes, you guessed it, Google. It’s not clear to me why Google, with $5 billion in its coffers and some of the industry’s brightest minds on its payroll wouldn’t be building a better flavor of search. But what do I know?

Luckily, Web 2.0 isn’t just about building better search. Here are some other themes that are worth paying attention to:

  • The semantic Web will evolve through unstructured tagging. I’ve discussed tagging and folksonomies previously, and it’s a topic that continues to get lots of attention. The exciting thing about tags is how large numbers of people adding keywords to describe the same thing creates a statistical distribution of information that becomes very useful. Tagging has some powerful implications for adding intelligence to the Web if we can figure out how to make tagging stuff really easy.
  • It’s got to be social. The applications I find most interesting connect people and ideas. The power of sharing and connecting with others is central to the Internet, and the social applications that tap into collective interests and knowledge hold tremendous promise. Network effects prove very powerful when applied to webs of people who share common interests and concerns.
  • User generated content is here to stay. To play on Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: You can say something interesting to all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot say something interesting to all the people all the time. This turns out to be an operative rule for publishers large and small and tells us user-generated content will evolve with small groups that self-select what they listen to. This will make it easier to say something interesting to all the people all the time, just not very many people. The challenge will be to find ways that match the interesting stuff with interested listeners and participants.
  • Open, easy-to-use APIs (define) fuel “coopetition” and growth. Say I launch a free service for sharing photos. My business model is based on advertising because people will come to my site to view images. A bunch of people begin to build other applications that use my open APIs to store pictures for their application on my server. I pay for their storage. But I also now have lots and lots of images to show visitors, hence driving more visits and page views and therefore increasing my revenue. By supporting other applications, I’m feeding my service. It’s symbiotic… or so goes the logic.
  • Everything and everyone will be syndicated. RSS is fundamentally misunderstood. When was the last time you asked someone if they’d seen any cool HTML lately? RSS is a protocol and a technology, just as HTML is. Nobody should be talking about it, but everybody should be using it. The problem is, it’s just too hard and too cumbersome to do. That will change very rapidly, and everything and everyone will become syndicated. Viewing feeds will become as natural as viewing Web pages. Syndicating a blog entry will become as natural as posting it to your Web site. Web pages and feeds will merge into some format that will blur their distinction.

How can you find out who’s saying interesting stuff and discovering the things you’re interested in? Will there be a super search engine that constantly matches you interests, or will you listen to voices and sources that come to you in other ways? Will you become such a voice for others to listen to? Will channels emerge (again) as a mode of tuning in to the Web? In the post media soup merger — Web pages, images, video and audio podcasts, and so forth stirred together in one big stew — how do I pick out the stuff I care about and share it with others?

Think of the power of 1 billion Internet users choosing the things they like. A powerful natural selection process is happening in which large groups of people participate, even if only by picking their favorites and voting by doing. The difference, of course, is we can see what the readers are doing and how they’re voting in great detail. That’s powerful. That’s what I want to listen to.

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