Thursday, May 1, 2008

Are you sure it's not suckitude?

From Why does everything suck?, a trenchant post titled Too Much Suckage, in which Hank Williams discusses how disappointing the Web is, in that it is not producing anything truly useful:
Are we all so devoid of creativity and insight that the best we can come up with is some new mashup on some old mashup all mashed up?
The answer is almost certainly yes.

Williams links to three interesting posts, one notes of a talk given by Tim O'Reilly at the Web 2.0 Expo, another by Paul Graham that essentially calls out the venture capital (VC) companies for not finding the next Google, and the last by Umair Haque that calls out pretty much everybody, in an impassioned call to action (which he parochially restricts to Silicon Valley).

Haque's is the one most on topic, if the topic is the basic uselessness of most of the innovation we're seeing today. He feels that the "radical innovators," whether they be VC firms or technical wizards, aren't doing enough:

There are huge shocks rolling across the global economic landscape. Here are just a few. Food prices are skyrocketing. The financial system is melting down. Energy, of course, is more and more toxic, and costly. We are all, make no mistake, dancing on the precipice of economic cataclysm.

It is the obligation of radical innovators to create new value by solving these problems - or cede capital and resources to those who can.

But today's revolutionaries are sheep in wolves' clothing. They're lost in the economically meaningless, in the utterly trivial, in the strategically banal: mostly, they're cutting deals with one another to...try and sell more ads. That is, when they're not too busy partying.
I have no doubt that these people have a point. I certainly get the feeling that most of what I see is derivative; everyone is adding social networking to their websites, because, of course, I want to bond with every other person who checks on Cubs scores.

But I think that these people are asking too much from the Internet, especially as it's been rolled into the fervor over the so-called Web 2.0. I'm not precisely sure what that is, but no one else is either; the definition seems to be coalescing into the user interactive aspect of the Internet.

And most of that is junk. Look, I write a blog, so obviously I feel there's some value in doing so. I like reading other people's blogs. But, if they all went away tomorrow, I'd survive. The ability to leave comments on, for example, newspaper stories has less value still. I admit it's kind of neat to get some feedback from a columnist I've enjoyed reading, but it's not so neat, obviously, that I'd pay anything for it. Slapping a comment section on everything may seem cool, building new communities and all, but the general level of comments makes it far more of an ordeal than providing an opportunity to interact with fellow thinkers.

I love the idea that economic cataclysm is going to be solved by using the Internet; it sounds very neat and clean and cool, but it's highly unlikely. Economics comes out of real activities, real added value, not out of a virtual mental frame. There's a reason that buzz-worthy Second Life hasn't made any money, there's no there there. Nothing has received more press than MySpace/Facebook (they're pretty much the same thing), but there is no clear context for generating revenue. Even such a "success" as YouTube is not as much a success as the average bicycle shop, if you measure success by feeding one's family.

We've been told time and again that the Internet has brought us a revolution, but let's get serious. Where's the revolution? It's been used mostly as another marketing channel by people with things to sell. There's a lot of boring chitchat about potential Lost spoilers, or people's uninformed opinions about the Dancing with the Stars results.

It undoubtedly has made some things more convenient, but I don't think we've even reached the point yet at which the sudden disappearance of the Internet would be catastrophic. It may become that central someday, but I don't believe it's close to that now.

The closest analogy to the Internet is television. When television came to the living room, it was heralded as a great boon to education, a way of exposing Americans to politics and making them better citizens, an extension of human minds.

What have we actually received from television? Maybe a little of that here and there, but, mostly, it's a pure entertainment medium. You can tell that when you see the priorities of the broadcast networks - how much convention coverage will there be this summer? After all, you can't expect the selection of our leader to take precedence over another episode of Deal or No Deal.

And the Internet is heading the same way. It can be used for shopping, for watching television or movies, for having "conversations" that would bore you in a tavern. But that's a far cry from solving global famine, or the energy crisis, and I think we're very, very far away from the point where it can even begin to help with those problems. The people above who are disappointed with the failure of the Internet to wave its magic wand are asking an awful lot of it.


Greg said...

I agree that there's a lot of room for improvement in the signal-to-noise ratio of the internet, but it has enabled or improved a number of things that affect the broad population:

1. Craigslist and ebay. These have made it easier to conduct person-to-person exchanges like finding a roommate, buying or selling used items, or even finding romance.
2. Wikipedia. There are many studies on the 'net that have documented that there are no more errors in Wikipedia than the old fashioned encyclopedias. At the same time, Wikipedia has a greater depth, and it is always up-to-date. The web isn't a substitute for a library, but Wikipedia has revolutionized the encyclopedia.
3. Community discussion groups. Living with cancer? French cooking? Knitting? Rebuilding antique autos? Historical re-enactments? No matter how obscure or esoteric your hobbies, you can find kindred spirits on the internet.
4. Government and corporate information. Need a tax form? An application for a passport? The rates to send a package to your friend? Last year's stock price? All of these can be found in a moment.

The common themes are that (1) the internet provides immediate access to important information, and (2) the internet helps enable global special interest groups. Both of these are tremendously valuable. There is, indeed, more to the internet than ads and porn.

That said, you are correct that there are bigger issues in life: famine, energy, disease, pollution. But the internet will play some role in helping society determine how to combat these challenges.

Androcass said...


I totally agree that the Internet has been a wonderful facilitator of many things, especially in bringing transaction costs down (and I'm using costs in its broadest sense, including the savings of being able to download a form). And one can certainly see the potential for it to become even more invaluable in the future. I like the Internet, I use it all the time.

My point was that it is still an immature medium, and that the people who are disappointed that it hasn't done more have too-high expectations. Could the Internet someday facilitate the conversations that will allow the halt of global warming? Sure could.

But I contend that it is not yet invaluable, that it could still be eliminated. I'm not recommending that at all, just mentioning that it is still in a nascent stage. The Internet in 20, 50 years will be allowing us to do amazing things, I'd bet - it just hasn't done that yet.

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