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7/14/2006
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Application Insight: Why I Hate Web 2.0

Hidden beneath all the new stuff collecting under the Web 2.0 umbrella is a simple fact: All that coolness exists to do an even better and more invasive job of marketing goods and services to Web users.

Joshua Greenbaum

The first rule of hating is to hate something that is easy to define, which means this column is already starting off wrong. Of course, the fact that Web 2.0 is hard to pin down is one of the reasons I hate it--my need for precise terminology is aggrieved by the ease with which Web 2.0 is used to describe everything from next-generation social computing to dynamic, interactive Web sites to whatever Wired thinks is cool this week.

But the real reason I hate Web 2.0 is because hidden beneath all the new stuff that is collecting under the Web 2.0 umbrella is a simple fact: All that coolness exists to do an even better and more invasive job of marketing goods and services to Web users.

The evidence is there at the top of Digg.com's Web site (an "advertise on this site" button), the new Wiki (buy and sell are just a click away) and the new mashup from Google called Maps for the Enterprise (pricing starts at $10,000), among many others.

This marketing focus isn't necessarily bad; after all, marketing is the engine that pulls the train of commerce down the track. But the problem with Web 2.0, and Web 1.0 as well, is that what are becoming increasingly essential daily activities for business and personal use can only be transacted within the context of more advertising and marketing. There's no choice, no universal opt-out, no "don't call me, I'll call you" option.

In other words, the lifeline we call the Internet has a price, and that is the time and effort each of us--at work or at home --spend fending off the pop-ups and sorting through the banners and tickers (not to mention the spam, cookies and spyware) to achieve what we originally set out to accomplish. We're constantly waylaid by the real raison d'être of search and the rest of the best of the Web: marketing.

Of course, the worst of this is spam, much of which is marketing gone amok. But the problem is found in every Web site that forces you to sign up, promises to never spam you and then spams you anyway. Or in the broadband providers that simply won't let you opt out of a privacy-invading sign-on process that insists on capturing valuable demographic data and then promises never to spam you (ha-ha) as long as you don't want them to.

I hate the buzz around Web 2.0 because the next-generation Web I'm looking for is the one resembling that quiet library I used to repair to for my research--all knowing, all encompassing and not predicated on a quid pro quo exchange of universal knowledge for my commercially immortal soul. I'm happy to have better Web interactions, a more personalized experience, a more social environment-- but I want to choose how invasive that experience will be.

Before you call me ungrateful for everything that the largely free Web 1.0 has given me, let me add that I would be willing to pay for my commercial-free Web 2.0 experience. And I think businesses in particular should be interested in following my lead. We don't, as a rule, let employees leaf through a stack of advertising supplements as they go about their daily tasks, so we should limit how often they are forced to do something similar on the Web.

I think the almighty Google and its competitors may be vulnerable to this anti-Web 2.0 perspective. Could there be an open-source search portal that would be able to run commercial-free, providing the search capabilities everyone is looking for without the marketing interruptions (or marketing-driven responses) everyone is trying to avoid? It's nice browsing the pages of Wikipedia and not being hit on for anything more marketing oriented than a donation to keep it afloat. Could an NPR for the Web emerge to provide an alternative to the constant bleating of marketing messages on our screens? Or better yet, is a Sirius/XM satellite radio equivalent in order? Pay a little extra for a superior technological experience that is, happily, also commercial-free?

I guess it's good to dream, even if--ironically for all the anti-establishmentarians who live to churn the Web 2.0 debate--the money side of Web 2.0 is the one most likely to prevail. If Web 2.0 proponents have even a scintilla of interest in the social side of the Internet, they should do some hard thinking about the new marketing beast they have unleashed, now slouching toward the Internet, waiting to be born.

Joshua Greenbaum is a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting. write to him at josh@eaconsult.com.

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