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?