Friday, May 26, 2006

The social revolution won't be stopped

You know that old saying that sometimes "you can't see the forest for the trees?"

I think those words of wisdom apply to what's happening right now with the rise of the Web and the integrated applications that are springing up that are built around it - what we are calling "social" or "Web 2.0" or whatever.

Although there is a lot going on, it doesn't seem fast enough for some of us (as Lee Hopkins talked about) and we wonder whether the things we expect are not going to happen.

But, like the hiker in the forest who is struggling to see around the trees to find the "forest," the connected future we're hoping for has already arrived.

Wired magazine has a great article about how yet another established business has had to adapt to the reality of the Web, which has forever changed its market -- in this case, it's the stock photo business. It used to be a pretty lucrative market for professional photographers, but the rise of stock photo agencies circulating images created by "amateurs" has pretty much driven the pros out of the business and forced the companies that used to "own" the business to adapt or get out of it.

The Wired story calls this the phenomenon of the "crowd:"

Welcome to the age of the crowd. Just as distributed computing projects like UC Berkeley’s SETI@home have tapped the unused processing power of millions of individual computers, so distributed labor networks are using the Internet to exploit the spare processing power of millions of human brains. The open source software movement proved that a network of passionate, geeky volunteers could write code just as well as the highly paid developers at Microsoft or Sun Microsystems. Wikipedia showed that the model could be used to create a sprawling and surprisingly comprehensive online encyclopedia. And companies like eBay and MySpace have built profitable businesses that couldn't exist without the contributions of users.
All these companies grew up in the Internet age and were designed to take advantage of the networked world. But now the productive potential of millions of plugged-in enthusiasts is attracting the attention of old-line businesses, too. For the last decade or so, companies have been looking overseas, to India or China, for cheap labor. But now it doesn't matter where the laborers are – they might be down the block, they might be in Indonesia – as long as they are connected to the network.

If I use my own experience as a template, it's remarkable how much has changed in such a short time. When I was at university, I had a nice, IBM Selectric typewriter that took care of all my essay writing. We didn't have personal computers. We laid out the campus newspaper with glue and pencils.

I started writing stories for a newspaper on an Underwood manual typewriter. And the office I worked in didn't have a single computer in the place. All of the phones had wires attached to them and the only way you could go "mobile" was to have a really long cord.

Today, of course, everything has changed. And it's happening so fast that we've come to take it for granted. If something doesn't work quite right today, don't worry. Tomorrow, there will be a new version.

When we look back at what's happened in business communications at the tail end of the 20th and the early part of the 21st century, it's going to be an interesting read. In the space of a single generation, everything has changed. The "old ways" of doing things don't even exist anymore - but we might not have noticed because we're too busy enjoying some of the new stuff.

While businesses will be a bit slower to adopt the "way out there stuff" the speed with which those ideas become mainstream is only going to continue to increase. And I like to think that's why I'm working so hard to stay ahead of the trend. Because I want to be one of the people that demonstrates how all this stuff adds real value to the business.

UPDATE - Mike at Techdirt has a good post on this story.

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