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A whole new internet?

After reading Janice’s piece, It’s a Whole New Internet, I didn’t really know how to feel about it. It is an exciting time on the web right now, but it doesn’t seem any more exciting than 2-3 years ago. At that time, blogs were really taking off, people were paying more attention to structured data in the form of RSS & XHTML/CSS, and using web services to paste together various apps and bits of data from around the web into new and useful services. But after thinking about it for a couple of days, what bothered me about it was echoed by Andre Torrez, who puts it a tad stronger (and funnier) than I would have:

Anyway, yes, there’s more money that seems to be available for people who have been building these apps, but the suggestion that people who make these sites are only now springing to life when money is available is kind of disappointing. I hate the equation that $1 million in funding == EXCITING OPPORTUNITIES. It’s how you fools lathered yourselves into the last bubble.

If your focus is on the neat technology shoehorned into some idea to make money then you’re going to be up to your ass in sock puppets again.

When the dot com economy was crumbling in 2000 and 2001, I remember thinking at the time that although everyone I knew was out of work (myself included), that is was a good thing for the long term. One of the more pleasant side effects of the dot com boom was that billions of dollars were spent training indivduals how to design web sites, program, write, etc. In the years following the bust, when all those people were suddenly unemployed or stuck in high-paying jobs that they didn’t care for very much but needed to pay the bills, they responded by starting to tinker around with all sorts of neat things, just for the hell of it. Because they could, because they wanted to, not because they had an artificial deadline to reach or some arbitrary client requests to satisfy.

They made apps and services that they wanted to use or thought that others would like to use, not only apps for which there was money available to build. There was no pressure…these people had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Out of this period came All Consuming, Movable Type, Amazon Light, millions of blogs, thousands of very active blog communities, the first consumer-grade newsreaders, Wikipedia (and thousands of other wikis), Firefox, FilePile, lots of social software (admittedly much of it of dubious value), Muxway (which became, a huge push toward XHTML/CSS-only sites, and a billion other things I’m forgetting, all when no one was putting any money into anything.

If you’re buying low and selling high, the time to buy optimism was two to four years ago, not now. That was when a small group of friends looked at a horrible economy and saw an opportunity to educate their clients and the rest of us about the value of user-centered design. When a husband and wife decided to build their own blog tool in their spare time because they wanted to use it. When an entreprenuer gambled that you could make money publishing weblogs. When a few folks decided that people needed a place to share their photos with friends. When a loose collective of designers showed us the possibilities of semantically correct standards-based web design. There’s still lots of opportunity these days, but it’s more expensive with less return.

Now that the money is back, the focus will necessarily shift even though, as Janice notes, we’ll be a little wiser about it this time around. There will be less innovation and activity from individuals because they’ll be snapped up by companies to work on their projects for their customers. The information flowing out of companies, even those that are pretty open, will be limited because of competitive and legal concerns. A person who โ€” when she was unemployed 3 years ago โ€” could spend a couple weeks in releasing a neat web app for anyone to use because she wanted to or could say what she wanted on her blog will now be putting all her coding energies into an application that serves a few customers & needs to be cash-flow positive and won’t have the time to post anything to her blog (and can’t say much about what she’s working on anyway unless all her readers want to sign NDAs). (Not saying this is bad…this is just what companies are for. But what’s good for companies, their shareholders, and their customers isn’t necessarily what’s good for environment those companies inhabit. On the other hand, everyone I know has more work than they know what to do with and that’s a good thing too.)

Consider Six Apart as an example of what I’m talking about. 6A is like a black hole for creative people. Folks who, a year or two ago, were among the leading voices in the discussion of how weblogs were changing our culture, were coding all sorts of useful plug-ins for Movable Type, or were pushing the edges of web design are now focused on making software that generates revenue and aren’t saying a whole lot about it. (Sort of ironic that working for 6A kills the weblogs of their employees, isn’t it?) That’s great for them, for Six Apart, their customers, and their partners, but it kinda sucks for the community as a whole.

(And just to head off some of the obvious criticism here, of course companies contribute to the common good (some more than others), competition creates opportunity, investment isn’t evil, Ajax is cool, innovation is still happening, etc., etc.)