The Web 2.0 era gave us a generation of internet companies that shared the same values – openness, collaboration, and the desire to do a single thing really well. But those days are over, and the companies that “won” have become just as annoying as those they set out to replace.
The mid-2000 was a time of optimism and renewal on the web. The dotcom bubble had burst some years earlier but the ensuing recession in the tech world had run its course. Successful, sustainable businesses – Google, Amazon, ebay – had survived the collapse and were thriving. Few doubted that the internet had changed society and commerce.
The web was back, and its spirit of resurgence was embodied by a new wave of start-ups who seemed to share a common worldview. No longer passive “eyeballs”, users would contribute content and help build the services they used. Walled gardens and proprietary protocols were frowned upon; the web’s new tools would be open and interoperable. The ambitious expansionism of first-wave companies like Yahoo! was replaced with a new philosophy, to do one thing only and do it extremely well.
Flickr, Delicious, Twitter, Wikipedia, Facebook, Last.fm, LinkedIn – these were just some of the websites that shared this vision. Tim O’Reilly called it “Web 2.0” and although it became an overused, clichéd term, it’s as good a way as any of summing up this halcyon chapter of the web’s evolution.
But the Web 2.0 era soon faced its own challenges. The credit crunch happened, global recession struck, investors started asking about business models, growth targets, revenue streams, profit.
The salad days of the mid-2000’s over, winners and losers started to emerge from among the Web 2.0 generation. Of the “losers”, few failed on their own terms like the erstwhile darlings of the dotcom boom did: a more common scenario was acquisition by the likes of Yahoo!, whose choking embrace proved fatal for Delicious and disastrous for Flickr; or Nokia, who smothered the promising social travel service Dopplr.The “winners”, on the other hand, were the ones like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn who rebuffed the advances of cash-rich suitors. They chose to grow independently, preserving the values that had driven them from day one.
Fast forward to 2012, however, and the winners of Web 2.0 seem to have left those values behind. Openness, respect for users, the “web as a platform”: these old ideas are rarely mentioned. The Web 2.0 generation has grown up and – dare I say it – they’re becoming as annoying as the businesses they set out to replace. Take Twitter for example. Once a plucky upstart with dodgy infrastructure and a baffling proposition, it allowed anyone to develop on its impressive API. But today the company has little love for the developers who helped fuel its growth, telling them in no uncertain terms that it’s going to lay down the law from now on.
Or LinkedIn, the understated company that carved out a niche of its own as the social network for business. Its discreet, sophisticated approach now seems to have been abandoned as LinkedIn fires out email after email – sometimes several a day – about its ads service, pointless news stories, the fact that someone you’ve never met has got a new job. Each new email drives the recipient one step closer to unsubscribing altogether.
And as for Facebook? The world’s largest social network inspires mass rage with every minor design change although, to its credit, it sticks to its guns and the protests blow over. That’s how much its users love it. But recently it seemed to go too far, first replacing everyone’s email addresses with @facebook.com emails, then going one step further and overwriting the contact details on some user’s smartphones. OK, it’s not exactly caused a mass migration to Google+, but it’s fair to say that along with the questionable IPO performance Facebook is not having a great year.
None of this should be surprising. Successful technology companies tend to start life fired up with insurrectionary ideals then become the type of huge establishment behemoths they used to mock. And it’s a good thing, because it paves the way for the next generation of smaller upstarts who will arrive and try to change the world all over again.
So maybe we should be happy that the Web 2.0 winners have become powerful and annoying. Maybe it’s time to let them take their place as the new establishment, and see what comes next.