The neck of Beck's guitar
May 29, 2006
Beautiful day today. Summer arrived in our neck of the woods right on schedule this year, unfolding her tent on Memorial Day weekend. After a month of rain, it felt good to be out in the heat under a blue sky, worshipping the old sun god. Perversely, though, I found myself at one point pondering the great inside-the-blogway dustup over the ownership of the term "Web 2.0." There are various ways to look at the affair, I guess, but what particularly intrigued me today wasn't its legal or ethical intricacies but just the way it revealed how we can invest a thing, particularly a purely symbolic thing, with very different meanings depending on the circumstances. The term "Web 2.0," if you remember, only started being bandied about in earnest about a year ago, during the runup to the second edition of the annual Web 2.0 Conference. At the time, the blogosphere treated the phrase with general disdain. It was, people said, laughably vague, seeming to mean at once everything and nothing, and its implication that a new stage in the Web's history had suddenly begun wasn't even accurate. "Web 2.0" was routinely dismissed as being "just a marketing slogan for a conference." Some bloggers forswore the term altogether.
But at the end of last week, when it was confirmed that "Web 2.0" was indeed a marketing slogan for a conference, and a trademarked one at that, everything changed. "Web 2.0" was suddenly a deeply meaningful, deeply valuable term. Bloggers rose up en masse to proclaim "Web 2.0" a cherished piece of public property, like a little, semantic Statue of Liberty. It had become a kind of totem. What had once been empty of meaning was now filled with meaning. What filled it? To get an answer to that question, I'm afraid you'd have to consult some eggheaded semiotician. It's beyond me.
I couldn't help but think, though, of the great nightclub scene in Antonioni's Blowup. (If you haven't seen Blowup, you really should. Among other things, it's a meditation on what we've come to refer to as "virtuality." The film came out in 1966, but it seems as resonant now as it ever did.) The scene begins - and I'm relying on memory here - when the movie's antihero, a fashion photographer in Swinging Sixties London, ducks into a club one night on a whim. Performing onstage are the Yardbirds, caught, miraculously, during that brief, magical moment when they had both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar. The band is ripping through the song "Stroll On," a reworking of the classic "Train Kept a Rolling." They're tearing it up. The audience, though, remains unmoved, aloof - everyone is far too cool to show any excitement.
Then Beck's amp goes on the fritz, starts cutting out. Needless to say, this annoys the hell out of Beck, that most Type A of rock stars. He goes back to the amp and fiddles with the knobs. But nothing he does does any good. The amp keeps cutting out. Beck goes ballistic. He starts clubbing the amp with his guitar. The guitar shatters. He keeps on smashing it against the amp. It falls apart. Soon the only thing left of the guitar is the very top of the neck. Beck looks at it for a second - a little broken piece of wood in his hand - and then, disgusted, tosses it into the audience. The crowd, so blasé up to now, goes crazy. Everybody wants that little piece of the neck of Beck's guitar. There's a huge scramble. The photographer joins in, and somehow he manages to grab the piece of the neck and pull it away from everybody else. He runs away with it, escaping back outside, onto the sidewalk. He stands there, catching his breath. Then he takes a close look at this thing in his hand that he and everyone else so desperately wanted just seconds before. It's just a shard of shattered wood with some wires hanging off it. A piece of trash. He drops it onto the sidewalk and heads off down the street. A kid who's been standing nearby rushes over to see what this thing is. He picks it up. He looks at it, trying to figure out whether it's something of value or not. Finally, with a shrug, he drops it back onto the sidewalk and walks away. Then another guy comes walking by and kicks it off the sidewalk and into the gutter.
C'mon Nick, some of the aspects should be obvious here:
1) Pundits love a "cheap irony"/hypocrisy story - and it's a juicy tale to have a guru of sharing supposedly trying to control language.
(note I said "supposedly", I know about trademark law issues)
2) Pundits also like to echo stories about marketing people or lawyers doing absurd things, especially with regard to overbroad "intellectual property" claims.
3) Bloggers tend to react very negatively to threatening legal demand letters
Combine all those factors, and you get the current tempest-in-a-chamber-pot.
It's not that the bogosphere mysteriously now sees immense "value" in the Web 2.0 term. Rather, it's completely consistent to see immense stupidity in a big company sending a lawyer after a small organization for using the foggy term in a way that the big company asserts is a legal violation of its questionable rights.
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 29, 2006 02:24 AM
nice story about jeff beck but....it's not that web 2.0 is a "deeply meaningful, deeply valuable term; but that tim o'reilly wants to own what is now seen as part of the tech lexicon and landscape - for a phrase that apparently darcy dinuuci "invented" in 1999. that's why everyone is up in arms.
Posted by: Mark Evans at May 29, 2006 08:23 AM
The "Web 2.0" issue makes a good meditation piece — many interesting ideas emerge from it. For example, I believe it could serve as an effective Kool-Aid test. Disillusioned? You've drunk the Kool-Aid.
I am also struck by the idea that "Web 2.0" was really "Web 2.0(TM)" all along. After the shock passes, it might be smart to learn something about Web 2.0 from O'Reilly: cash is king, even here.
Finally, there's no doubt that the episode has altered (damaged?) the "Web 2.0" brand. There used to be much debate over what it was — I think we all now have a much better idea.
For me, "Web 2.0" is now "Web 2.0(TM)," and I think that's what I'll call it from now on. It represents the new, post-utopian web 2.0.
Three days ago, you called Web 2.0 "a brilliant name for a new conference."
Now it's just a piece of trash?
How about this: using the designation "2.0" for the next iteration of just about anything has been a cliche for years, and as applied to the web it really doesn't work all that well, since this stuff is part of what the web was supposed to be all along, but, hey, we needed to call this wave of techs and companies something, and Tim wrote that fine essay about it, and, what the heck.
Then came the poorly-handled servicemark issue, which even when resolved made people feel that O'Reilly was trying to own something that is about not having one owner, and the blogstorm blew up.
Yeah, it's overkill and there is an unpleasant mob mentality in play. No, O'Reilly is not a traitor to all that is good on the web. But clearly this question of ownership has touched a nerve, for reasons that say a lot about (to coin a phrase) Web 2.0.
Posted by: Ed Cone at May 29, 2006 05:51 PM
By the way, the strength of the trademark claim is apparently not as dispositive as you may think:
From Trademark Blog:
"IMHO, the 2005 O'Reilly piece begins and ends the discussion. If you coin and promulgate a term, you can sell it as a buzzword or you can sell it as a brand, but under trademark law, it's virtually impossible to do both. (And if I want to promote the Trademark Blog Web 2.0 Conference about protecting trademarks in the Web 2.0 space, then I will cite the O'Reilly essay as Exhibit A as to how I am using the term to describe a quality of my offering."
Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at May 30, 2006 02:24 AM
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