Web 2.0 has permeated millions of homes, schools and businesses. Political candidates use blogs and video just as much as The Daily Show to reach younger audiences, while consumers rely on social-networking sites for human interaction and content aggregators for news. Wikipedia has noted more than five million entries, and in 2006, YouTube served up over 100 million video clips per day.
The question is not if Web 2.0 is here to stay, but rather who is actually driving the content. Web 2.0 is all about empowering all people, so the hope would be that these tools are the voice of the people, an accurate reflection of what is popular, or factual. A peek behind the curtain, however, might not reveal what you think; the Wizard of Oz is not the common man. Those currently in control are a very small, and very vocal, subset of the online population.
Popularity contests are not new to us--as a democratic society, our political infrastructure relies on and embraces the popular vote; regular people are skyrocketed into stardom thanks to contests in entertainment mediums. The numbers are indeed startling: 124 million, or 64 percent of U.S. residents voted in the 2004 election, whereas more than 66 million people voted in the 2006 American Idol finale. Now imagine the results if only a small percentage of the population voted, or contributed. The winners might not reflect what the general public wants, but rather what this small subset prefers.
A recent Hitwise study indicates that as few as 4 percent of Internet users actually contribute to sites like YouTube and Flickr, and more than 55 percent are men. To draw a parallel to our high school days, this would be akin to having only the football team and cheerleaders vote for the homecoming king and queen (although perhaps more fitting for our industry, the chess team?)
But vote they do, because the Internet in crowd is taking people back to high school, where the "cool kids" drown out the silent majority. The science genius or the shy artist could have incredible things to contribute, things in which the general public might very well be eager to learn, but the fact is, they are either unable to be heard, or don't even want to get in the game. I think I speak for many when I say that I don't want all of my news, information and entertainment filtered through my high school football team.
With Web 2.0 spreading like wildfire, and the Internet in-crowd getting louder and louder, is the Internet destined to forever exclude? I don't think so, but right now most of the Web 2.0 sites and services really only resonate with the like-minded peers of those producing the content, and are not as relevant to those not entrenched in the Web 2.0 world. The shy type, brilliant poet and lesser known blogger stand little chance of being heard.
Industry influencers are scrutinizing how this plays out from a business perspective. The vocal minority possesses a strong influence and is encouraging hundreds of thousands of disciples and me-too companies into their social-networking bubble. Pundits and analysts speculate that we may be headed for another circa 2000-inspired bust, which we all remember a bit too well. Is this clique strong enough, vocally and financially, to continue?
Only time will tell. This differs from "Bubble 1.0" because despite the massive volume of fledgling companies, most of them today have innovative technologies, and current funding requires more than just a good idea. Bubble 1.0 saw companies based around concepts that spent millions of dollars on advertising (Pets.com puppet, anyone?), but that didn't always have the idea or the technology to solidify and sustain the company.
My larger concern is from a social perspective. Web 2.0 has incredible potential in empowering and connecting people online, but many of the implementation approaches are fundamentally flawed. To be the mainstream trend (that it deserves to be), it must evolve from the currently small group of people who are creating and filtering our content to a position where the "everyman" is embraced. A new majority will emerge--contributing more and giving this world a more accurate, complete view of the silent majority.
Until then, the concept of "popular" is just another Facebook in the crowd.