In the next evolution of the web public interaction will be less important

One of the things that pops into my mind when I look at what most of us call web 2.0 is that this era can be marked as an era where every user can be a public figure. In the old days (pre-web 2.0😉 ) people would connect on-line with each other using e-mail or chat. But the connection was only possible if you know each others e-mail address or chat name. The number of contacts a person could have would be limited to the number of e-mail addresses you were able to exchange with family, friends, colleagues and people you meet. This seemed to work fine for most of us, until technology enabled us to become public figures.

The era of web 2.0 gave us technology to start producing our own content, instead of having to look at “professional” content. More important though, web 2.0 gave us the power to distribute both ourselves, our messages and other content we create. Web 2.0 gave us all the power to create our own public presence. The ability to distribute was key to the success of the technology. Video would not have become so popular if someone hadn’t thought of building a YouTube service. We wouldn’t be preparing for everything to become social (web 3.0?) if some college kid hadn’t thought to build a Facebook (-like) social network.

And where the pre-web 2.0 era was marked by static and mostly private conversations, the web 2.0 era is a dynamic never ending public conversation. We used to have people physically together to be able to show off our expertise. Now, everyone ventilates an opinion whenever we feel like it. Not just because we have expertise on the matter, but because we can. We used to have 10 friends available via e-mail, now we have thousands via different social networks.

This ability to become a public figure has also fueled the idea that we can all become our own personal brand. It’s not the major companies anymore that can define a brand. Anyone can, simply because the distribution power we have access to allows us to build that brand at virtually no cost. We can communicate our brand across many different channels reaching many different people. A few years ago people would most likely subscribe to a physical copy of Wired magazine to get informed of the latest in technology. Now people subscribe to Robert Scoble. Not just because he as effectively build a technology evangelist brand for himself. But he was able to distribute that brand to the tech community using the technology web 2.0 provided him.

In my opinion society seems to be divided into groups of people that cope with this differently. There is the people that saw the web 2.0 era arise and participated in it from the start. These people adopted the technology and made a public appearance for themselves. They are the ones on every social network, blog, content aggregation site etc. They see the web as the never ending conversation and participate 24hrs a day in this conversation.

Then there is a group of people that sort of missed the arrival of the web 2.0 era. Maybe because they were older, but just as likely because they weren’t interested in computer (technology). These are the people that have difficulty understanding the basic workings of computers or the Internet. They will use it to the best of their ability, but they can’t and won’t understand the attractiveness of having a public appearance. These people haven’t missed out on the technology, but simply never became part of the public conversation.

And there is the new generation. These are the people that might not have been aware of the start of the web 2.0 era, but they are part of it, simply because it’s there. It’s the high school and college kids of this time. They don’t know about the pre-web 2.0 era. Most of them don’t know e-mail or associate it with something their parents do (boring). They use the technology as a way of life but don’t care about it’s inner workings.

I find this last group the most interesting. I haven’t any statistics to justify what I’m about to say, but they seem to think different about public appearance. Where the web 2.0 generation almost frantically wants to be a public part of the conversation, these young people are more concerned about their privacy. Sure they are on Facebook or other social networking sites. They use the tools. But most of them aren’t building a personal brand, they aren’t part of every public conversation. They have adopted the technology and use it for what it originally was meant for, interaction with their friends. You won’t find them on Twitter- or Friendfeed-like services. Not because these services aren’t mainstream enough, but more because these people aren’t that interested in a public conversation. They want to have instant access to their friends, but they don’t need access to a world of unknown people. For them web 2.0 is just the web as they know it. Nothing new about it, it’s like e-mail in the old days.

And it is this group that we should focus on when we think about a next web era. Web 2.0 isn’t the end point of development, it is merely a playing ground for something new. And if we take a closer look at the needs of this group then I would say that the next generation web services will be very different from the ones we have right now.

I believe that we will see new tools that won’t be designed around one database holding and exploiting the information of millions of users. Instead we will see tools arise that support the interactions of a few. Highly localised (not just in the physical sense) and focused to support the needs of smaller groups of people. Maybe with less ability to find and connect to people around the world, but more tailored to fit the need of people that are already know or are in the vicinity of each other. Smaller communities, but more intense interactions. Not just with each other, but also with the physical world surrounding the community. Not focused on building a data history of every user on the system, but focused on the here and now, the real-time support of actions and needs. Profiling a user of your service will be less interesting, understanding and supporting him and his friends just in time will be more important. Becoming a destination site is pointless, joining the user is the only thing that matters.

This also implies that new business models will be needed. Not the web 2.0 FREE business model that is based upon the value of a large network or community. Instead we need business models that leverage user value. Business models that don’t force the service provider executing it to build walled gardens or conquer the entire world. We need business models that can scale down instead of up. That are profitable for smaller groups of people and can support an entire ecology in a more local manner. That doesn’t mean next generation services won’t have millions of users. It just means that they will need to be highly contextual for smaller groups and be profitable by providing these smaller groups with value.

In a sense web 2.0 has brought us technology to open up the entire Internet into one global village. The next wave of technology will counter this effect and make the web look small again. Not small in the sense of little, but small in the sense of personal, localised, familiar, private, targeted on the user and his friends. You can see it coming already if you look at the technology that is arriving right now. Cloud computing, distributed databases, the call for portability of user data through developments like OpenID and other microformats, the semantic web, etc. But the technology is just enabling something the user wants. Just look at the behavior of the coming generation. That is where you will find the start of an answer to the question how to become the next Google or Facebook.

What do you think will happen?

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29 Responses to In the next evolution of the web public interaction will be less important

  1. I differ with you here a bit Alexander. I think the high schoolers of today are doing what high schoolers have always done. They’re focused on their core set of friends, regardless of whether technology has enhanced that or not. I didn’t have MySpace growing up, but I knew what my friends were up to.

    Here’s where the rubber will meet the road for me. Fast forward today’s high schoolers by 10 or 20 years. You know what? They’ll have drifted apart from their current friends just like every generation has. It’s natural. College, jobs, moves across the country, marriage, etc.

    What’s local now for the high schooler won’t be local in 10 years. Interests will change. Memories will fade.

    Things like Twitter, FriendFeed and other social media apps help you find and interact with people outside of your day-to-day in-person contacts.

    I think expanding outside your locality will continue to be a primary interest of today’s high schoolers in the future. There’s no expectation that you’ll have an abundance of like-minded people in your vicinity. It’s not just about brand-building (which will become more important to today’s high schoolers over time), but it’s about learning from and interacting with like-minded people, wherever they are.

  2. Tin Pig says:

    This is an interesting post that raises a lot of good point. I tend to agree that we’ll see a down turn in the hyper-connectivity that is most neatly summarized by the twitter-friendfeed phenomenon.

    Anyone out there will agree that the user base of these services is largely comprised of the technologically aware (geeks, if you will). And so the ensuring conversations of late have been questioning whether these services will ever go ‘mainstream.’

    Facebook solves the problem mentioned by Hutch in his comment above. The inevitable diaspora of friends and family leaves a communication gap that Facebook fills nicely. But the always-on, know-everything-I-do, Twitter capability is more a novelty than an answer to a real need.

    Finally, let’s not forget that Web 2.0 is coinciding with Bubble 2.0. The re-emergence of the earnings-less and sometimes even revenue-less business models fosters the idea that a Personal Brand is something worth achieving. If Twitter can be worth all those millions simply because it exists and lots of people use it, surely I can be worth something if I can only get a few people to listen to me.

  3. Colin Walker says:

    I agree to a point but only to a point. I feel that there will be a split and the social web will head in two directions but that these will not necessarily be mutually exclusive.

    I’ll go in to depth in a response post tomorrow.

  4. @Hutch you definitely have a point that youngsters at first have a smaller world they live in and later on expand their world. It could very well be that in this expansion they will become more interested in public interaction. At the same time I see that some of these youngsters display a different behavior wrt social media and privacy than our generation.
    Zephoria pointed me to a study a while back which showed that teens are involved in social media, content creation and public interaction. But that same study also showed that a large % of them restricts access to their content (in other words, only friends get to see it).
    You can find the study here: http://tinyurl.com/2xua2y
    Another thing that occurred to me and again, no statistics to back it up, is that a next generation by definition differs from the one before. We now begin to explore social media and public interaction. To the next generation this will be old-fashioned. They will use media differently form us. I can’t predict any future, but it seems that there is often a circular pattern involved. We connect everything into a global conversation, the next wave might make it more local again (but much more immersive into the local environment as well).
    We don’t know what the future will bring us, but it is great to discuss it together😉

  5. Mark Dykeman says:

    This is a fascinating topic that deserves its own post in reply. I just want to touch briefly on one quote about this younger generation:

    “But most of them aren’t building a personal brand, they aren’t part of every public conversation.”

    Most of them aren’t worrying too much about having a large income or salary, either… yet.

  6. @Mark @Colin it will be nice to see what you guys will write up😉

  7. Colin Walker says:

    My reponse is nearly done but I just wanted to add one thing here about the online behaviour of the younger generation.

    As Mark says, a lot of the teens aren’t currently worried about the big wide world but things will change. Teens are increasingly angst-ridden and it is part of the growing up process to want to keep things private – is that any different to previous generations hiding things under their beds so that parents won’t find it?

    Certainly, since the 50’s there has been an attitude of “you don’t understand me” between the generations but as we grow older we broaden our horizons and come to realise that we are not so different from previous generations and everything goes in cycles. Consequently, the current generation may want to shut themselves off at present but they will open up as they gain more life experience and this will be reflected in their online usage patterns.

  8. Matthias says:

    Your idea of three different groups of people and their future behaviour towards social software certainly is the most interesting part of your article.

    But a prediction of usage pattern for generation Y (?) based on studies how they use social media as teenagers might be misguiding: This generation still grows up and thereby might change behavioural structures over time. In the same time social media still develop further!

    In the end it might turn out that for early adopters of web 2.0 self-branding was something very special and exciting (as you pointed out), where as for the younger generation it will simply be something very normal.

    But what will happen with the third group you described? Will they always stay apart although the internet becomes more and more part of every aspect of daily life? Or will they find ways to join?

  9. Pingback: Colin Walker » Evolution of the social web.

  10. Sarah says:

    I’m so glad Hutch linked to this in my FriendFeed (oh, maybe FF does have value….), because I had not yet read this. What an interesting and thought-provoking article! I think you are right on.

  11. @Sarah, thx for your nice comment, glad to hear you enjoyed reading the post🙂

  12. Pingback: Thoughts on public and private social media | Broadcasting Brain

  13. Josh says:

    “email is the new snail mail”

    As a 17 yr old I’d say you’re spot on here Alex, in fact if I need to ask someone something I’m more likely to sit on MSN and wait for them to come online then shoot off an email.

    I think the only email conversations I’ve ever had are with adults, not peers.

    Also the observations about Teenagers being interested in keeping up to date with their friends, not with social networks in general are very true too. Teenagers have always just used the best tool available, 30 years ago that was the phone, now its myspace or text msgs etc.

    Of the people I know who sit on Myspace or Facebook all day, none of them are even remotely interested in “social media” itself.

  14. @Josh thx for stopping by and comment. It’s good to hear an opinion of someone who is part of the generation I’m pondering about😉

  15. Josh says:

    haha no worries =P

    Actually Alex a thought occured to me while thinking about your articles…

    You often expound the need for a real business model, not a free service that ends up compromising on quality. I agree with this, I personally feel Freemium models are the best way to go, however sometimes I think one element from this whole debate is almost forgotten.

    A lot of the issues with people (and I’m thinking of my age and younger) not paying for something is simply that they can’t. They don’t have a means to pay for stuff online so instead they download cracked software, music or expect everything for free.

    I really think that if there was a fast and simple method of buying stuff online for people, largely teenagers maybe, without a credit card then a lot more people would be happier to actually spend money.

    See for example I never knew that you could buy stuff online through paypal and a normal bank account. I presumed you still needed a credit card. After finding this out I asked around and no one else knew either.

    Even after you set up a paypal account it takes at least a week for it to be approved, at least another week to transfer money in… and then the actual payment.

    Now for someone say looking for music… why would they wait 2 weeks for something they could download right now? If there was some way for people to pay online that was both secure and fast then I’m sure services and products that require payment would become much bigger…

    Sure people will always rip off other peoples stuff or expect things for free, but at the same time I’m sure if time was invested into the actual payment system itself then there would be some changes in peoples outlooks.

  16. Josh, that is an excellent observation. You are definitely right about that. You can see this in the mobile world (at least in Europe, but I’m sure it isn’t much different in the US). Teens pay themselves for mobile communication because the mobile payment system is pretty simple and straightforward.
    I also wonder about debt cards. That could work too if there is an on-line equivalent of it.

  17. My heart pounds faster as I interact with this kind of communication. I started reading Colin’s post, who disrupted my focus with an insistence I come here first, so I haven’ read his post yet. I hope I will have time when I finish this comment to go back and read that. What I am finding remarkable today is that I know Colin, Hutch and now Alexander because of FriendFeed/Twitter and my growing willingness to participate in the conversation in spite of my lack of technical expertise.

    “We need business models that can scale down instead of up. That are profitable for smaller groups of people and can support an entire ecology in a more local manner.”

    This point is well taken and I think will begin to define more functionally all of these tools and how they will implement a higher level of being, if, as optimists must see all of the growth of this communication, where we are headed. Please, don’t let me start blogging about this stuff!!

    BTW, kids, I think, are learning to be social, not so clear on what they want to do or say. Forgive me for generalizing…

  18. @Mary Anne I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t be blogging about this😉

    I just wrote a followup post to this one of interested🙂

  19. nariposa says:

    I believe that we will see new tools that won’t be designed around one database holding and exploiting enabling the information of millions of users.

    Fixed.

    The only people who have the noise problems you speak of are webanistas who accept random adds and have hundreds of friends on twitter. The third group of people you mention have a realistic number of friends on a realistic number of services, and use them to the full extent to follow the web leavings of the people they care about.

    In other words, it’s already working like you say it will work in the future. If you’re overwhelmed by strangers right now, it’s user error.

  20. @nariposa, I used the word exploitation on purpose. It refers to the business model that exploits (monetizes) user data by showing advertisement. Data enables people too, but that wasn’t the point of that particular sentence.
    I’m not sure what you mean by noise here. I didn’t use that in this post. I do agree with you that all three types of people already exist. I do think that the third type will behave differently from the other two, as I mentioned in the post.

  21. Dr Bob says:

    I’d like to make two points:

    Web2.0 Business Models:
    —————————————
    This post reminds me of a section from Freakonomics. “Chapter 3: The economics of drug dealing and the dot-com boom”. We’ve had our initial social networking innovation via MySpace and Facebook and their creators have done very well finanically. Each new web2.0 socialnet is now going after a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. Will we reach the point where it is not economically viable to create a new network? As you point out, Alexander, the conquer-the-world business model is not realistic anymore.

    Private niches/groups already exist within the large socialnets. Will these flourish and remove the need for seperate/new networks? Perhaps OpenId, OpenSocial and Facebook applications will gradually combine into one big authentication network – where the user can move seemlessly from one social web2.0 application to the next. My bet is that each social application will become equivalent to a web-site, jockeying for the ‘socialnet login’ rather than the ‘web hits’ – with very little income except an advertising stream.

    So what is the new business model? It’ll come with the innovation.

    Privacy:
    ————-
    I personally agree with you Alexander, people use the new social web to blog as a public figure and create their “own personal brand”, but everyone wants privacy. Just look at the public response when Facebook arbitrarily destroyed its users privacy by adding their NewsFeeds and Beacon advertising system:

    http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/09/facebook_and_da.html

    Privacy issues will continue as long as a significant amount of private information is placed in the hands of a single entity such as Google or Facebook. They say ‘trust us” – we “do no evil”, but do we really? What would happen if there was a real popular alternative with better privacy? Would everyone switch, as they did from myspace to facebook?

    ——————
    Disclosure: We’re attempting to build an ‘private social network’ called Retroshare. This is a decentralised communication system (i.e. not Web2.0😉 that ensures your privacy from corporations, the prying public eye and everyone else.

  22. Pingback: Privacy in the use of Social Network Sites « Meandering Melbourne Musings

  23. mellyreed says:

    Isn’t this idea just harkening back to the way the web was driven in the early days of ArpaNet and NewsGroups?

  24. Pingback: Colin Walker » Of social bookmarking, relevance and the needstream.

  25. Pingback: The Future of Public Interaction on the Web « Leslie Carlson’s Blog

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