Friday, January 19, 2007

Why the Web2.0 Revolution has failed (and how to identify other failed revolutions)

My thesis, as presented herewith, is that the web2.0 revolution has failed; that we’re currently living, not the revolution, but the counter-revolution; that unlike what we've been constantly told, no essential power has been transmitted to the people, but rather old forms of power have reshaped and refurbished themselves.

Back in 2005, when I first placed my legs on the itinerary2.0 I had an immediate intuition about the dangers lurking on the sideways, feeling the power by which socially-generated consent was capable of altering my perceptions, my ego, dragging me into a discourse and actions which were not mine.

Two years later, I think that I’m capable of formulating this initially blurred intuition, having collected some more perspectives and few other metaphors.

My thesis will have the following structure: I’ll start by describing the current beliefs and why I think they can be qualified as false consciousness. I will then present the idea that a revolution fails once it has been the subject of a nomenclatural process, i.e. that it has been given a name; I’ll continue by describing the counter-revolution process which is based on "trivialization through commercialization" and finally I'll give three demonstrative examples: Free Software, Punk and Second Life.

A warning, though: This is a blog post! Hence, it will be short, unproven, and deliberately shallow: it is a teaser and nothing more. Also, this is literature - not science!

You are aware, of course, of the revolutionary spirit, that "power to the people", which is the logo, I'd say, of the entire Web2.0 revolution. The destruction of the old institutions – the old media, the old businesses, the old academia, the old everything – and the construction of the “User-generated content (media), the Long Tail (business), the Wikipedia (Academia/Knowledge) and so forth, briefly, the recreation of a virtual spatio-temporal system which belongs to us, people, and where WE crown our “top popular” kings, we – and not some suited oligarchs of the old regimes.

Thing is, that’s too good of a story. We live as if the revolution succeeded, as if we’re in control, as if the old monarchs have been indeed decapitated; but that’s an illusion. Old monarchs never die. And the institutions – they will never ever get voluntarily out of the way. No one is renouncing power, unless forced to, and if necessity demands adaptation, then old monarchs adapt.

I don’t deny that the web2.0 revolution did happen; that the Cluetrain Manifesto has changed some perspectives; that Steve Gillmor has slaughtered many sacred cows; that Richard Stallman changed the world of software and so forth – the list of great people is long. My only take is that the revolution didn’t succeed.

When did it fail?

The web2.0 revolution failed on that same day when Tim O’Reilly publicly baptized it as “Web2.0”.

On the day that Tim O’Reilly gave the name Web2.0 to what has been till then an undefined yet concrete uprising; on the day when the nomenclatural process took place and Web2.0 as a public concept was born, on that same day the revolution has been institutionalized, has been confiscated by the old regimes, the rebels hideout being fully discovered, then destroyed.

You might wonder how the heck the simple naming of things makes them die out. The explanation is simple: rebels need a hideout, and ideological rebels have to have their ideological hideouts just the same. The institutions are constantly scanning their territories in search for unknown ideologies. When they discover such, they map it by giving it a name. That’s the nomenclatural process. The next thing is to eradicate this newly identified, classified, tagged, named ideology. The way democratic institutions do that, is not by using force, but rather by turning this ideology into a depeche mode, i.e. a trend. They commercialize the ideology, and by that they neutralize its explosive potential.

Rebels, once identified, are moving on to another yet unmapped territory. I assume that an alternative to web2.0 is currently under construction, somewhere, someplace.
Also, rebels don’t seek to properly and accurately label themselves. Therefore, those new buzzwords we’re exposed to with every passing day - Web3.0, SOA2.0, and so forth – are nothing but the continuous efforts of the institutions to capture the elusive essence of those revolutionary alternatives, so that they will be able to quickly tame them for their needs. In other words, there’s an alternative CTU working constantly against ideological trouble-makers using the following process: identify through naming; trivialize through commercialization.

An example of this name-then-commercialize process is the Free Software Foundation – a revolutionary movement that promoted Free Society through Free Software. The institutionalization of their uneconomical/unpleasant ideas was by naming it Open Source, and then identifying it with a way to “increase productivity” (and see more details in Trust, in a world built in code). Today we even got the concept of commercial open source – which is, if you’d ask Stallman, a great example for what an Oxymoron is. As you might know, Richard Stallman, who’s been named the father of open source by those institutions (thus sterilizing his detonative power) is a great opponent to the Open Source movement and its commercial, productive, bourgeois credo.

Another example I am quite fond of is that of Punk.

The first Punks were not Punks – they were rebels. They revolted against their current regime by going against its conventional aesthetics, that which is identified with the Right and the Beautiful. Mohawks, tattoos, piercing, vomit, sex and drugs and Rock’n’Roll: it’s all a blow in the regime’s life-style aesthetics.
But then they were labeled Punk. And next thing you know, any teenager was shaving his/her head, piercing his/her nipple and having a conventional tattoo, preferably a small butterfly on the shoulder or just above the buttock. This has become “Très à la mode”, the revolutionary essence being flashed down.

Second Life is my third case. Originally used as an unknown, uncontrolled territory, a paradise for outsiders, Second Life has been identified, classified, tagged, blogged about, mapped (with Google maps) and then commercialized. It’s an amazing example of the trivialization process previously described, with the old institutions confiscating this country to their own commercial purposes. If you play this game now, you’re playing their game. I can only assume that the original citizens of Second Life have long packed their virtual luggage, and left this country in the search for a yet unmapped zone.


Tim O'Reilly has told the story of how the name "web2.0" was coined in a brainstorming that tried to capture the essence of the different, apparently unrelated web phenomena that existed at that time. They finally came out with something and gave it the name of Web2.0. This is a description of a trivial process that happens anywhere, anytime.
And still, one cannot deny the effect this simple naming had on the entire tech industry, and consequently on us all. This simple naming changed our reality. And what happened next? next came the web2.0 gold rush.
Imagine neither Tim O'Reilly nor anyone else would have come out with a name for those disparate phenomena. Would the world be different? I'd like to think that probably we could really have had our own revolution.


Anonymous AdaMM said...

this is a very nice point, i must agree with most of what you said here, just a few points: i don't believe it'd do any difference, wouldn't it be Tim O'Reilly, maybe a different term and slightly different people would be today "writing history" - but the same principle would apply. every revolution is eaten, and a TAZ is TAZ because of its transient nature.
and on the other hand: the process never stops and i believe that this particular "revolution" helped us at least a little bit, to blunt the edge of mass-(media/society/ification) that is weakened by it (though still firmly in control). i suppose guys like these from piratebyran might be the next line of warriors. personally, i hope so :)

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Muli! I've been trying to come up with a name for what I think a WebOS should really be. Your post has helped me put that into a better perspective.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Udi h Bauman said...

Although your thesis identifies a valid pattern in revolutions, I agree with Adam that overall the Web2.0 has dragged as upper in the evolution graph towards more intelligent & free universe. And even if it stopped the revolution, the commercialization at least made it a part of the regular value system in which we live: web2.0, open-source & SL are becoming inherent part of all standard business virtual mechanisms, which yields much value to all of us & wouldn't have happenned otherwise (at least in a foreseenable future).
An embrace of the system to rebels revolutions neutralizes them but also revolutionizes the system, don't you think?

1:58 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Udi, as you said, it’s a description of a pattern. And that’s it! No judgment is made here about the process or its consequences.
As for the “more intelligent and free universe” – although this was not the subject of my post, if you already raised it, allow me to have few questions here:
What’s the basis for this “more intelligent and free universe” hypothesis? I assume that by universe you mean society(ies): in what sense today’s society is more intelligent and/or more free than, let’s say, the web1.0 society? And when you say society – do you mean each and every individual within this society or just certain groups within this society?
Personally, the directions I see, in regards to web2.0 implications, are the opposite. Recently I’ve learned that deception is to be sought not where it’s obvious and visible, but rather at the heart of what is considered “the consensus”. If you combine the name-then-commercialize pattern with the "suspicious heart of the consensus" you get to the point where adopting a tiny sense of criticism about the web2.0 party is necessary if we want the future to indeed be bright, as well as (how could I forget…), equally distributed.

Jadon – my pleasure. I read your WebOS posts – it’s a nice analogy you’re doing.

Adam – TAZ indeed, although I’m not sure Bey talked about the institutional naming as a mean for taking down an uprising. As for the piratebyran – thanks for the reference (but we need much more than p2p file sharing and “no license” taglines in the front line).

10:20 PM  
Anonymous Udi h Bauman said...

The basis for my sayings can be found for example in the wonderful stories in the Time's person of the year issue, e.g., a black farmer in southern france becoming a successful musician or a boy in pakistan becoming a successful photographer - I guess I'll just need to learn more in order to understand where the deception is.

Anyway, thanks a lot for an enlightening post!

11:31 AM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...


Forget this deception and trust your instincts. If you feel the world is getting better, that people are becoming happier - then go with this feeling and let nobody stands in your way. Your instinctive belief - not my articles - will change the world.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Mikael Bergkvist, XIN said...

The power wont transfer to the people until they take it by their own action.
There's no revolution without the people backing it up and running it.

Web2.0 has not yet reached the status of being a revolution in this sense, so it didn't 'fail doing' what it never did to begin with.

What happened is that web2.0 fired up new ideas and concepts that will eventually be incorporated in such a process, which is yet to come.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Muli Koppel said...

Web2.0 is here. you can trace down its memes, credo etc. You are talking about something which is yet to come. I therefore think that you're not talking about web2.0 - but about the next revolution which is currently under construction, not yet identified, not yet named.

10:08 PM  

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