Leaving the commune

It was just a year ago that Tim O’Reilly was talking about Web 2.0 in terms of “collective consciousness” and “the potential of what it is to be human.” “The Internet today is so much an echo of what we were talking about at [New Age HQ] Esalen in the ’70s,” he told Steven Levy, “- except we didn’t know it would be technology-mediated.”

But O’Reilly has changed his tune. Now, on the eve of his latest Web 2.0 Conference, he admits that he views Web 2.0 not in millennialist terms but in purely mercantile ones – as just another way to make a buck. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that many people, “perhaps reacting to the greed that fueled the IPOs of the dot-com years, saw in Web 2.0 a chance to create a new collectivism.” But O’Reilly disagrees. “I don’t see it that way at all,” he says:

Web 2.0, he says, is about business. He says many tech movements start out with similar idealism, only to give way to capitalism. For instance, O’Reilly says, Napster introduced file sharing, but now iTunes has people comfortable with paying for music online. “You do a barn raising at a particular stage of society,” he said, “and then the developers come in … It always happens that way.”

He’s right, of course. But he puts it so coldly – “and then the developers come in” – that even I feel a little twinge of nostalgia for the old idealism, the old hippie dream. I feel like a yin without a yang.

By the way, O’Reilly just announced that he’s written an expanded version of his “What Is Web 2.0?” essay. It’s called “Web 2.0 Principles and Best Practices.” You can buy a copy for $375.

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Leaving the commune

  1. Michael Chui

    In the past few years, I have grown to believe that business should be done in the interest of the betterment of human beings as a whole. And I think, in a convoluted kind of way, it does, without even direct awareness by the actors themselves.

    Capitalism is hardly a bad thing; money is one of the greatest mediators of trust ever invented. And it was invented several times over. There’s nothing lost in the move to business except the wish for trust without mediation. (Of course, this wish is still ever perpetual; money mediates between two disparate entities, but it seems things like PageRank and del.icio.us mediate trust between an individual and society. So aggregation is another trust mediator.)

  2. Nick,..flip it around and look at it from the buyer POV – they focus more on prices and profitability in mature segments of the industry. Are 90% margins in s/w maintenance form Microsoft or IBM products justifiable? In my travels I have always found tech entrepreneurs around the world to be eager capitalists – 10 years ago in socialist India or today in Communist China. Indian firms today in outsourcing have already become addicted to gross margins in the high 40s – almost double of what Accenture and EDS make. Soon, CIOs will be bitching about some web 2.0 companies with exagerrated returns. But today, they are more focused on Oracle and HP pricing and increasingly about Indian firms. Web 2.0 pricing is not even on the radar…yet

  3. Alex Reuter

    I guess since his insights are so forward looking, so futuristic, that they are pre-adjusted for inflation. Its actually only about $10 in 2025 dollars.