Web 2.0 reality check

A Tweet here, a blog post there and anyone would think the world had caved in.A few days I go I idly Tweeted that the Web 2.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

A Tweet here, a blog post there and anyone would think the world had caved in.

A few days I go I idly Tweeted that the Web 2.0 Expo currently underway in Berlin had me yawning with boredom. Chris Brogan picked up the beat and asked if I would like to explain what I meant, especially as I proffered the view that social media people have been exposed as having no (or very few) clothes. I duly obliged with an admittedly provocative title. Lo and behold, Tim O'Reilly comes weighing in - it is his company's conference after all - saying:

Frankly, Dennis, this post demonstrates a shocking ignorance of what Web 2.0 is really all about. It’s the move to the internet as platform, and the rise of applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. Social media is a tiny part of that.

And you’re kidding yourself if you think that hasn’t affected business, or delivered tangible ROI. The companies that have learned how to leverage networks are outperforming.

As the saying goes: no kidding Sherlock? It might have helped if, instead of focusing on one small part of my post - a rant against social media - Tim had looked at the totality of what I was trying to say but hey, that happens when folk feel offended. The argument can be summarized as follows:

  • We've been hearing about Web 2.0 for several years. The story isn't new and it isn't noticeably changing for the better.
  • Those who have been most voluble are those who have hijacked socio-psychological terms to suit a particular marketing agenda. This is something I find personally offensive as it often demonstrates an ignorance of the dynamics that operate within organizations as supported by years of research.
  • Most of the obvious focus is on sales and marketing activities as the locus of Web 2.0 but the real value comes when we locate these technologies in a collaboration framework. Sales is only one dimension.
  • Where is the new thinking that can help business understand the value that can be delivered? Groundswell was like a Chinese meal: intensely filling but ultimately unsatisfying. But keep up the good work. We need the use cases.

Far more interesting was the variety of comment that broadly fell into two camps: those who want to sell Web 2.0 concepts and those who are trying to think through what it really means. The former want to lynch me as a curmudgeon, the latter are standing back and trying to make sense of a general message most of my colleagues think sucks for its vagueness. A few take a half way position. I don't have a problem with ANY of those positions. We need that form of debate and we need it to be vigorous. That's why, rather than pick out pieces from each, I'd encourage anyone reading this to hop over to Chris's place and judge for themselves.

In the interim, my Irregular colleagues had been having a spirited discussion around related topics. Bob Warfield put real meat on the kinds of bones I want to see: facts, hard use cases, real demonstrations of change where you can say 'Yep, that's breakthrough.' Sorry, but the details are under 'no blog' rules we operate when discussing sensitive information. Why do I insist on breakthrough as the yardstick?

Enterprise has had enough of incremental step change where the ROI is questionable at best. The trending down of technology prices goes some way to redressing that imbalance but arguing that technology is cheap ergo high ROI is facile. As I have repeatedly said on this and other blogs, there are genuine barriers to adoption that make even free look expensive. My Irregular colleague Susan Scrupski thinks that's a griping argument. Sure. But it is recurrent and current with few easy answers in sight. I suspect a part of the problem is because those most active in pushing these solutions have little idea about organizational dynamics or what makes people tick. I don't say that lightly. Check out Oliver Marks blog and his experiences at large organizations.

Some of the more interesting comments addressed this issue but didn't hit the target - at least not for me. In my argument, breakthrough ROI comes from seeing these technology through the lens of collaboration, which in turn implies process and context. I am mindful that huge amounts of value continue to be locked up in supply chains. AMR quoted a number of $3 trillion in 2005. Has that materially changed? Simply being able to communicate across supply chains in a meaningful manner could do wonders to lubricate those rusty wheels. That's an implicit assumption the ESME team has made (disclosure: I have an involvement) in building use cases for one of the technologies against which Tim thinks I am railing.

In an Irregulars post to our Google Group, Bob makes the implicit demographic and behavioural point:

...there is an entire rapidly growing demographic that may be increasingly difficult to even reach if you don't deploy a "2 dot oh" solution.

I think that demographic is very important, BTW.  The differences in their web usage versus others is stark.  They are a Tsunami of different thinkers, and companies will not be able to ignore them as employees, partners, customers, or competitors.  This is an important, perhaps just as important, a reason to embrace E2.0 as ROI.

It gets worse though.  It isn't just body age, but mind age that matters here.  I know those of you who work in the Social space will know what I'm talking about.  There is a shocking gulf between those who "get" the web and know how to use it personally, those who talk about it but don't actually get it, and those who don't even want to talk about it.  Whether it is the Gen-Y folks Susan wrote about that originally inspired me, or older people with Gen-Y minds, they are pivotal.  Somehow, the idea of reaching Early Adopters, if it's important to your organization or goals, also factors in.

This gulf makes it mandatory for anyone who wants to succeed with Social Media to have people in the first category (who both "get it" and "use it") on the project and participating as Community MVP's from the get go.  It makes me wonder whether the Nielsen ratios (90 lurkers, 9 commenters, 1 thread starter) are skewed largely by the web haves versus have nots.

Lately I also wonder whether surveying who the active users are in your organization, and making it a requirement for new hires isn't also important.

Bob's points are well made. It's something I've known for a while as I regularly correspond with youngsters trying to make their way in the world. But check out GreenDotLife to see what is exercising the minds of upcoming key influencers in the IT consulting market. It sure ain't their Facebook profile.

As an experiment I set up CoverItLive on my personal weblog this morning Central European Time to track the Tweets via Twitter search along with a clutch of people I know personally who are attending Web 2.0 Expo. Bear in mind there are some 2,000 followers to my Twitter account. Also bear in mind that those who Tweet can be considered among those who are at the bleeding edge of what's happening in the general Web 2.0 world. Finally, regardless of anything else, whatever I did I would be presenting a lopsided 'report.'

Despite all the talk about Web 2.0 being about people and conversation, most of what I saw was disjointed and random observation even though there were thousands of tweet messages. I made some efforts to engage with those in attendance but with little success. Were these people all moving in isolation? I doubt it. Is this the kind of useful flow that some believe we're now living? Not really. More a cacophony of sound that is only discernible by those with some understanding of the topic issues. It's a different form of walled garden.

If that observation holds true, I conclude even those who are at the bleeding edge of new messaging methods are ways off 'getting' the collaboration vibe. Others will argue that Twitter is not a conversation. It can be and often is. Still others will argue that I must have ticked a lot of people off who chose to ignore. That's probably true but then in back channels, an awful lot of people were quietly saying things like:

Liked it very much, of course ppl will not agree with you 'cos this contradicts w/ their revenue policy and plans.

In the enterprise world in which *I* live, my job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. That doesn't make me negative in discussing these issues. Far from it. I am a realist who happens to believe in the goodness this 'stuff' can deliver. But it isn't the only thing. There are lots of other fish to fry out there that could deliver way more value. If in raising the issues a few Silicon Valley sacred cows get burned along the way, it won't be the first nor the last time.

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