What will Web 2.0 do for my neighbor Ron?

remotecontrol.jpgOne of the coolest things I brought back from the recent Web 2.0 Expo was this t-shirt that said “Web 2.0 is – – – ” with a big blank box for you to write in the definition of your choice. People at the show got into the spirit of the occasion and used Sharpies to fill in their own definitions. I spotted Ross Mayfield on stage wearing his t-shirt with the “made of people” scrawled in bright red.

I chose to leave my t-shirt blank so I could ask people around town what they thought as I ran errands around town. The responses have been enlightening. To be blunt, no one really gives a damn.

I think about all the whiz-bang tools that are being released on a weekly basis, the latest additions to the scene jumping up and down for our attention. How are these sites going to improve the lifestyle of my neighbor and his beloved rose garden? Sure, he’s got always-on broadband (his wifi Linksys router blinks at me each evening) though he doesn’t really need it. Broadband just happens to be the best deal in town and it allows him to be online while his wife is on the phone. Yeah, it’s nice to be able to comment on the latest blog postings about his favorite ball team but he would rather debate stats face to face with his mates at work, it’s a richer experience. He likes to keep in touch with his kids via email but has no need to IM them or (god forbid) get their latest Twitter updates. The acceleration of the news cycle has done little to improve his quality of life.

The popular media has attempted to bring meaning to this flurry of activity but they can only do so through an old familiar lens which paints the Web 2.0 revolution in terms of teenage millionaires and insider techno-babble. Most people dismiss Web 2.0 as another self-important bubble of exclusive back-slapping.

The bigger challenge we need to tackle is how to transform all the great work being done today as something that has an impact on the broader world. The stage is set – all the foundations are in place – everyone who is interested in web-enabled this or community-powered that are already wired up and connected to each other. The trick is bringing all this connectedness to bear on greater issues in the world around us.

I think it was Kevin Lynch of Adobe who said at one of the “high order bits” at Web 2.0 Expo that the first phase of computing was driven by the need to make individuals more productive and produced applications such as Word & Excel. In the Web 2.0 phase we’re now making groups more productive in their collaboration via community-driven applications such as wikis, social news sites, and socially driven television shows such as American Idol which is basically a crowd-sourced hit machine. The more difficult but ultimately more rewarding challenge will be bringing the benefits of participation to the masses in a way that is intuitive and baked into the way the rest of the world lives their daily life.

History is instructive here. The introduction of a free press must have felt just as liberating back then as it does today to anyone who has interacted with a blog or social networking site. The power to reach and influence a broader audience is a thrill. When, for better or worse, the press evolved into the fourth estate, the rules around participation were codified and now most people do not enjoy ready access to the media. Today we all benefit from the (relatively) open exchange of ideas that the free press has given us. When Ron gets his daily paper delivered to him, he gets a snapshot of the best of what this ages old platform has to deliver.

The next great opportunity is to package up and deliver to the Rons of the world the best of what Web 2.0 community has to offer in a format that is as integrated and easy to consume as his daily Chronicle. We’re seeing bits and pieces of this poke through the topsoil. I’m looking for a radio station that features the best podcasts of the day, a terrestrial TV station that streams the most popular clips on YouTube, a version of Upcoming embedded on my refrigerator door.

Everyone that attended the Web 2.0 Expo is a member of the creator class – we enjoy the ability to interact and control the world around us. But most people would rather come together around someone they trust to deliver the world to them. They’ll vote with their attention and get strength and conviction from their chosen community. No matter how cool and shiny we paint this our ever-customizable Web 2.0 nirvana, we cannot ask them to change their habits and join us in our medum – we need to meet them using tools they understand.

Where’s the Web 2.0 universal remote?

UPDATE : Daniela Barbosa points to a flickr thread where people are posting photos of their Web 2.0 t-shirts. Add yours to the cloud!

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