Digital Media

Brook Farm

Novelist Ian McEwan, in an interview with The Independent, once noted his "distrust of Utopian deams." It was a central theme in his novel Saturday (a book, frankly, somewhat middling quality to McEwan’s other novels).

I have thought about the line frequently in the past year as I’ve gotten re-immersed in the world wide web, and re-immersed as a result in some of the utopianism in the hyping of blogs and participatory media. Two recent bloggers posed good, thoughtful questions about this underlying utopianism: Nicholas Carr’s "Amorality of Web 2.0" post (well trod by this point) and Om Malik’s piece on "Web 2.0, Community and Commerce."

While they have provoked some good debate, they have also brought out responses from the Utopians. I’ll pick on one post in particular which so perfectly captures the rapturousness surrounding participatory media:

There are so many ways we can screw it up. Spam, hate, stupidity,
and control can do that. But if everyone behaves the right way, then we
create great whole larger than the sums of their parts; every
capitalized entity above proves that. But we’re still trying to figure
out what the rules are, what “the right way” means.

The truth
is that we’re doing nothing less than creating a new society and we’re
still figuring out what the rules and economies of that society are.

It’s funny, we’ve seen so much of this before, identical if not in detail at least in spirit: the belief that it was all new, that laws of physics and customs of thousands of years were to be rendered obsolete. We’ve seen it with the fashionable memes of the moment such as push, e-commerce, community, the new economy, the long tail, "broadband" then "mobile" and so many others.

The truly amusing, if not ironic, thing in all of this millenial, Utopian rhetoric is that it’s really been about the money: concocted mostly by our good vc friends and their cohorts the conference organizers, and eagerly embraced by all of us trying to build and sell companies (let’s be honest, hardly anyone is building them to go pubic anymore), or to get our companies more highly valued and sell stock, and so on. The Utopianism usually vanishes shortly after the stroke of luck, the stock sale, or the acquisition by Yahoo!/Google/Newscorp. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

If you strip it all down, dump the bullshit meme-hyping and sometimes resulting utopianism, what really matters at the end of the day are the companies who have built things that make our lives better in some significant way. We’re willing to use their products or services, even pay for them, despite the fact they make the company’s founders into billionaires because they give us something we need or value, and do it so much better than their competitors. We could care less about who owns our clickstreams, or whether we’re participating or not.

For me, so far, the list of consumer Internet companies who have done that is astonishingly short: Yahoo! (for the initial free webmail and directory service), Amazon, Google, Apple (for the ipod, natch, and the powerbook), and eBay. They each provided me with a useful service and did it better than what the others offered. The rest — the endless list of companies and accompanying memes, some of them bought and some of them not — all sound and fury signifying, for the most part, nothing.

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