Web 2.0 Meets SmartMobs: Howard Rheingold Views On Web 2.0 - Exclusive Interview
Howard Rheingold has been very kind in sparing some little time to share his personal views on the Web 2.0 phenomenon and what Web 2.0 means to someone like him who has been feeding a vision for a social web that dates back to 1996 and earlier.
In this text-only transcription of a video conference conversation we held a few days ago, Howard holds no diplomatic veil on over the trends and the increasingly scary obstacles that the Web 2.0 phenomenon may bring about.
In particular he points out the dangers that net neutrality, DRM, and old fashioned media communication models which may endanger, sabotage or even upset the deep, grassroots transformation taking place now on the Internet.
But, in what appears to me as the most valuable piece of insight that Howard Rheingold chose to share in this exclusive interview, is his personal strategic business advice to traditional media moguls, like large telcos and televisions companies on what would be the best strategy for them to anticipate, adapt and ride this phenomenal change wave we are labeling Web 2.0.
Here is the full text transcript of this interview in which I have remixed in, for those of you who have missed them, a few related video clips giving greater insight into the hot issues fueling this conversation:
Robin Good: Hello Howard, good to see you today.
Howard Rheingold: Hello Robin, it's good to see you always. (The interview was recorded during a video conference session).
Robin Good: It's my pleasure and today I have invited you for a little talk about this buzz word that is all around us, this Web 2.0. What I would like to ask you is, how does the Web 2.0 buzz apply or intersect with the social networking and the areas of social computing that you are interested in.
Howard Rheingold: I think you have to separate the buzz from the social phenomenon. There are a lot of people who can make money from the buzz, and I am not so sure that we're not seeing another bubble. There are a lot of companies being funded around that buzz. But please don't mistake me for an official "industry observer", as I am not really that involved in the industry myself. But it seems to me that we are hearing more than a bit of hype around the people who are starting these new companies.
Now, in terms of this phenomenon, I think what we are seeing is the blossoming of something that I have been talking about for a long time.
So I think a lot of the Web 2.0 business simply has to do with the social phenomena that come from the underlying peer to peer capabilities that we are seeing emerge.
I think the other part of it, which is not so much the social but the infrastructural side, the web services part that enables you to do your word processing on Writely or to put a lot of your work and resources out on the web instead of on the hardware that is physically present in your office.
It's not as if the underlying protocols of the web or the two-way nature of the web has been changed, it's just that we have:
a) a large population now with broadband connections, and
But unfortunately there is still a very large number of people who have not understood that the true nature of the web and the fact that the Internet is a many-to-many medium that privileges peer-to-peer communications and enables people in their homes, dormitories, garages and offices to create little applications that they can share and make available to others in simple but effective ways.
So what I think is that the newest happening is an "awareness" and the coming to fruition of a lot of things that we have been developing for quiet a while.
Robin Good: What about these phenomena like Myspace, Facebook, Youtube? We're seeing this happening now for the first time in a major way, and thanks to bandwidth, easier tools and other factors we are also seeing significant grassroots contributions that were impossible just a short while back. Is this going to affect only the many industries and the major capital investments of the Web 2.0 guys, or is it also going to influence the number and quality of new opportunities for people to do things better from a social standpoint?
Howard Rheingold: Well, YouTube which I understand is serving one hundred million videos a day is a fantastic phenomenon, but it is enabled again by the technologies that have been developing for a while. It has taken some years for the means of production of video to become affordable, but now with a laptop computer and a digital camera you can do inexpensively what used to cost a lot of money.
That has taken some years to develop and now with the availability of broadband connections and the development of applications, Youtube is a perfect example of an application that enables this population of these digital cameras and broadband connections to begin creating a new literacy.
The printing press created a new literate population that began creating things science and democracy and the protestant reformation. That is why I often talk about making a clear distinction between:
a) the enabling communication technology,
b) the communication media that results from people using that technology in a new way, and
c) the literacy that emerges.
What emerges is that we are accustomed to the era of the broadcast media based on the old one-way communication technology model.
Beyond Broadcast: Reinventing Public Media - How The Media Landscape Is Changing
Now we are entering a many-to-many phase of Internet communication technology, in which literacy is beginning to serve us in things like YouTube, and not just via the highly paid reporter for the news channel, but also via some kid in the dormitory room who can now directly broadcast video. And what is even more impressive is that these talented kids keep increasing in numbers.
I think it's important to know that this is the early stage of that development, and that it's going to take a while for the new tools to further develop and for new institutions to emerge around them.
I do think, we should not assume that the power of peer to peer communications and starting new industries in your dormitory room is going to get you a reliable and profitable business. We are in fact seeing a full-blown reaction and counter attack by the incumbent companies whose business model depends on having a monopoly on distribution based on the old one-way communication model.
So you are seeing the recording industry and the motion picture industry with digital rights management, you are seeing the extension of copyrights by the big companies that are copyright holders and who are actually baking-in the control of the use of technology in what they call "Trusted Computing", and which will appear in the next version of Windows. I think taking together these measures represent an attempt to enclose and constrain the ability of the users to create computer peer-to-peer applications.
The most ominous of these is I think the issue of net neutrality, in which the modem and cable companies in the U.S are wanting to impose a new approach on the use of the Internet in which they can charge some users more for sending their bits (making their web site accessible) while privileging some large established companies to provide fast access to their sites and information based on the money being paid back to them. I think this is something particularly important especially we look at the overall political and legal scenario in which this is happening.
Net Neutrality - An Introduction
It seems to me that there are specific economic interests moving to try to control this outburst of user-created content. I don't think it's going to be easy to control it, but so far in the political and legal front the incumbents are winning their battles.
Robin Good: Got you! Howard, if we were to speak to a group of entrepreneurs and to people who work across the world in traditional media and who are listening with an open mind to what you are saying, which is the advice from you to them as to how to face these rapid changes taking place today? Besides emulating the disputable behaviour of some large corporations as you have just mentioned, what would be the other, alternative opportunity for them?
Howard Rheingold: Well, keep in mind that in the past when new media came along, the old media did not disappear. They merely went about changing their style.
Television didn't do away with radio, but radio found a new home in the automobile. If it wasn't for the automobiles and all those people sitting in the traffic inside their cars, radio would have long had major problems. But now instead of the radio offering the entertainment to the whole family - sitting near the radio-set like it was happening at beginning of the 1930s - radio offers news and weather and traffic reports and talk-shows: a new, evolved use for an old medium.
Motion pictures had to change when television came along. I think we're going to to see this happening again with journalism. Older print and news media needs to adjust to the new media demands and characteristics and in specific regards to journalism, to develop strategic and long-lasting partnerships with the amateurs.
We're already seeing what is called "citizen journalism" emerging and I think ultimately what's better for the industry, what's better for the citizen journalist and what's better for democracies is to see some kind of partnership develop between the news organizations that know about the traditions of reporting, journalistic ethics and how to tell a story, and those people who are out there with their webcams on the street getting the real stories as they happen. That's one way to do it.
Robin Good: What about the telcos and large television stations? Do you have any advice for them?
Howard Rheingold: Well you know that for the television stations, the production values are important. Having a global organization is important. But having a big building with expensive broadcast equipment is becoming less important.
It is hard for old institutions to change.
We've seen a couple of those instances happening. IBM is a good example of an old institution that managed to change and began to face the new technology.
What did they do? They embraced the open-source technology, and then open-sourced a billion dollars worth of their software.
Telcos companies are not institutions that like to change, and frankly they have resisted this internet business from the moment that it was proposed.
I have little hope for the television and telcos, I see them institutionally as "institutionally" obstructionist forces.
Now we are seeing some of those telecom companies who are saying that VoIP services are breaking their business and their monopoly on connections is no longer the source of their business. So these companies are beginning to look at other kinds of services. But it is very hard and painful for an old company that used to be a regulated monopoly to change.
Robin Good: So is there any advice for them?
Howard Rheingold: No. It's very unlikely for old institutions to change.
If they are sitting on enough cash, I would advise them on becoming a new venture capitalist that goes out and funds 18-year olds who have ideas and helps lots of them start their own companies. As an investor, you have a certain stake in the enterprise and a certain say in what they do, but they don't have the burden of trying to change an old institution. Unless like IBM you have a visionary leadership that enables you to change your entire business model. I don't think that without visionary leadership, an old and entrenched organization, a regulated monopoly like many of the telcos are, is going to be able to change.
I think also television, being somehow the younger medium, might enable adjustment just as broadcast had to adjust to the emergence of cable. Now, all of the broadcasters and cable companies are going to have to adjust to Internet video.
I think the best they can do this is to invest in it.
Robin Good: So would there be an imaginary, fantastic rule of thumb that allows some of these companies to do business in this new environment while doing good?
Howard Rheingold: You know I don't think that there is any particular formula, but I do think that you have got to experiment.
If your survival is at stake, you have to devote some significant money and take some serious risks to experiment. And, experimenting means to be prepared for some of those efforts to fail. Failure doesn't always mean that you made the wrong decision, it also means that you are closer to identify which is the right track to follow.
If you are a venture capitalist, you would know that you would have to get many failures before you get one big hit.
And if your survival is at stake, you're going to have to make those bets and spread those bets around and be prepared for something that might not work.
Telcos and television broadcasters are still not used to that, they're used to having a great deal of control over their products; they're not used to spend money experimenting.
That's why I advise these large corporations to create new companies and to go on and look at all those entrepreneurs out there who are creating new applications in their space and invest in them, partner with them, learn from them.
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