FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Is Web 2.0 Capitalist or Marxist?

As the conversation around Web 2.0 becomes more mainstream, those who examine it from a business perspective are wondering whether its components and effects more closely mirror capitalism or socialism.

The New York Times weighs in on the side of a pro-capialist web, examining how it is benefitting "gazelles" -- small businesses that are able to quickly adapt to and exploit change. The article profiles "virtual" companies that grow and profit using online collaboration tools to network widespread freelance talent, and more traditional companies that have enjoyed renewed growth through online sales channels and supply chain tools.

Meanwhile, Andrew Keen of the Weekly Standard declares that "[j]ust as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley." Keen argues that, although Web 2.0 media appropriates egalitarian language ("citizen journalists," etc.), it fosters nothing more than irresponsible narcissism.

The purpose of our media and culture industries — beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people — is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent... Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard... [O]ne of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 future may well be that everyone is an author, while there is no longer any audience...

As easy as it is to dismiss Keen as a snobbish crank, he does make some valid observations. However, he fails to take into account the ways in which Web 2.0 promotes quality through social ranking of content. Though still maturing, tools such as Digg and del.icio.us allow readers to rank and "vote" for items that, to them, have the greatest value, allowing the proverbial cream to rise to the top. New media has its ways to "discover, nurture, and reward elite talent" -- those ways are just different, and are still emerging.