Web 2.0 is, uh, not bad

I was looking forward to reading James Fallows’s long piece on “living a Web 2.0-only life” in the new issue of Technology Review. The concept’s intriguing. For a couple of weeks, Fallows “shifted as many of my activities as possible onto the Web, using new, hip technologies.” The article is his report on the experience. The title’s pretty good, too: “Homo Conexus.”

But the piece is a bit of a let-down. Fallows didn’t exactly find his Web 2.0 sojourn to be a life-changing or mind-bending experience. In fact, it doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression at all. Here are the key insights:

1. There are some nifty new tools on the web, like Google Calendar.

2. It really helps to have an internet connection and a keyboard.

3. Trust is critically important to web communication and commerce.

4. Middle-aged intellectuals are not the target audience of services like MySpace and Dodgeball.

Well, at least they’re points that are beyond debate.

As to the bigger picture, Fallows praises Web 2.0 as a democratic medium for creativity while also carefully distancing himself from the stuff that’s being produced:

All this outpouring of knowledge is inspiring. If you were more churlish than I am, you would end up mocking the vast tonnage of earnest self-expression, the narcissistic self-documentation (in the form of Flickr photos), the craving for contact, the blog-based disputation, and the effort invested in metatagging that characterize the interactive Web. But I am not that churlish. I find it admirable, and deeply human.

Fallows makes one observation that hits home with me. He describes how underwhelming he finds all the automated product recommendations that are always being thrown at you on the web. “In nearly a decade with Amazon,” he writes, “I’ve yet to experience the moment of perfect serendipity when it discovers a book I really like that I wouldn’t otherwise have known about.” I, too, have been waiting years to experience that moment – with Amazon, with Netflix, with iTunes, with all of ’em. Up to now, I’ve been embarrassed to admit the fact. It’s made me feel out of step – like some kind of consumer pariah, some lonely misfit prowling the shadowy outskirts of the marketplace. It’s nice, finally, to have a little company.

9 thoughts on “Web 2.0 is, uh, not bad

  1. ethan

    I too, have spent…probably hours whittling away at Amazon, et.al.,’s recommendation service – what I own, what I like – only to end up being told I should buy another translation of the Iliad, or the Cliff’s Notes. I’ve given up…almost.

    I think this will be part of the pseudo-post-technology backlash – like individuals reverting to notebooks (Moleskines especially) for notes. Recommendations will have to be person-to-person, even if they are six+ degrees removed. We’ll find the balance someday.


  2. Anonymous

    Sorry to hear that you do not find Amazon’s recommendations useful, Nick.

    Amazon’s recommendations directly lead to a substantial percentage of Amazon’s sales. That would seem to indicate that others seem to find them quite useful for discovering items they did not find on their own.

    It is strange that you have not had the same experience. Please feel free to get in touch with me if you are interested in discussing why the recommendations do not seem to work well for you. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts.

  3. Zephram Stark

    My grandfather is always giving me evidence of the Internet being a passing fad. When Amazon fails to recommend a book that he would be interested in, his eyes light up and he proclaims, “See? It will never be as smart as a human!” I try to explain that the Internet isn’t a separate entity meant to compete with humans, but an extension of ourselves—an intermingling—a grokking of each other, but he doesn’t understand. The system that he bases his life on no longer exists, but he’s too old to change—he’s invested too much time in perfecting his ways to admit that his expertise and advice are no longer relevant.

    My girlfriend Ava asked me yesterday why we, as a race, weren’t spending all of our time and resources on developing the nanobots and quantum computers that would allow us to live forever. “Now that it’s within our grasp, surely that’s got to be the most important thing.”

    The obvious answer is that many of us suffer from the same condition as my grandpa. We’re stuck in a system of corporate profits and other such nonsense when we could be using our technology for convergence to achieve something useful. Enough of us are still so concerned with screwing our neighbor out of his just compensation that we miss the big picture: if we’re willing to work together to learn a new system, we won’t have to die. There’s no monetary consideration in it, but who cares?

  4. Clyde Smith

    Nice headline.

    Your point about contextual ads pretty much fits my experience but I think they work for other reasons.

    When I look at sales on Amazon that came from people clicking through from my site, I get the impression that they’re sometimes buying stuff I recommend or that they found via my site, but at least half of what’s bought has nothing to do with what I’m doing.

    So I think the Amazon ads work more to attract people’s attention and bring them into their world where they then start shopping.

    That said, I do find things worth knowing about from contextual ads including Amazon’s, stuff I’d forgotten about, peoople who are trying to make a move or are new (especially with Google) and so forth.

    But the recommendations I get while on Amazon and Netflix make sense but rarely do much for me.

    I think the promises and hype just raised folks’ expectations way beyond a level that an automated system could ever provide, at least at this point in time.

    I look forward to things improving but I’m still not holding my breath for freedom! [lol]

  5. webslog

    I’d recommend you give Pandora a try … an online streaming music player that allows the user to build stations based on one or more songs that the user likes. Pandora then pulls songs from a database that match the songs you chose based on a number of “musical genomes” (Pandora’s term). I’ve been really surprised with how much cool stuff it’s played. Too, there’s a thumbs up/down mechanism that lets you tweak the station. Nice stuff. http://www.pandora.com.

  6. pedrobeltrao

    I agree with the last comment. Pandora was a great surprise for me. Most of the music generated in the radio stations related to some of my favourite groups are really to my liking. Also the technorati blog lists to some topics are mostly interesting. Just because it doesn’t work *yet* it doesn’t mean we should not keep trying.

  7. Zephram Stark

    I plugged in Yello, The Seatbelts and CAKE. Within a few dozen thumbs up or down, it extrapolated Cobra Verde’s cover of “I Feel Love,” The Rolling Stones “Harlem Shuffle” and even two of the three Madonna songs in my collection. Amazing! Neither humans nor stand-alone computer programs would be able to that. It took a combination of both.

  8. Zephram Stark

    Conor Oberst made a station of his own music and similar mixed acoustic and vocal harmony tunes. It’s one of the most popular stations: Bright Eyes Radio. He releases albums under his own label, bypasses the recording industry and keeps the profit of his work. Pandora‘s crowdsourcing more fully enables Connor to receive compensation equal to his contribution. Ain’t the internet great?

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