The ranger of a virtual dog park, an Internet entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist, a story scout, a “fake engineer,” and a word-of-mouth marketer are among the Penn players in a movement known (by some) as Web 2.0. By Susan Frith


In many ways it was the standard “old-school magazine courtship,” recalls Larry Smith ASC’91. The Manhattan-based editor met a woman at a cocktail party—tall and thin, a bit intense perhaps, but a “regular, put-together New Yorker.” He asked if she did any writing.

A little, the woman said. She was thinking of going back to school.

Two glasses of wine later, she leaned in and confided, “Actually, I’m a dominatrix.”

A grin spread across Smith’s face as he pondered the editorial possibilities.

“She doesn’t look like Xena: Warrior Princess. She could work on Wall Street and you would never know,” he says.

Although the woman’s identity remains secret, many of the ordinary and, ahem, pain-producing details of her life have unfolded in an online diary at Smith’s magazine by the same name (more later on the title). In response to its popularity, SMITH magazine (www.smithmag.net) may bring fresh installments to readers’ mobile phones a few times a week.

In some ways Smith’s magazine resembles a gigantic cocktail party to which everyone is invited to come, listen, and contribute their own personal stories. If domination isn’t your preferred cocktail, you’ll find an 83-year-old’s recollections of being shot down over Berlin, a web comic about people affected by Hurricane Katrina, tales of embarrassments suffered in the pursuit of love, and the ironically captioned slideshow of a soldier twice deployed in Iraq. It’s this democratic, participatory quality that Larry Smith believes lies at the heart of a concept called Web 2.0.

The term was coined by the computer-technology focused company O’Reilly Media in 2003 to refer to a turning point for the Internet in the wake of the dotcom bubble burst of 2001. (One of its brainstorming sessions on the topic reads like a fashion magazine’s what’s in-what’s out list: Web 1.0 is Ofoto, Britannica Online, and personal websites. Web 2.0 is Flickr, Wikipedia, and blogging. And so on.)

The definition of Web 2.0—and whether it’s even a meaningful concept—has spawned much debate. But as the Internet matures, many companies that capitalize on one or more of these facets have received or claimed the Web 2.0 label:

Social networking. Websites are building online connections between people with common personal or business interests.

Sharing. Services and applications that were once isolated on individual sites are being shared and mixed across the Web, with the result that you can find YouTube videos imbedded in a political blog, for example, or Google Maps “mashed up” with Craigslist real-estate ads on Housingmaps.com.

Collective intelligence. As more people use sites and Web applications, contributing their own information to them, the better they become.

Accessibility. With a high-speech connection and no knowledge of HTML, the average person can easily start a blog, post pictures or videos, and be an active participant on the Internet rather than simply a recipient of its content.

Smith is one of at least several Penn alumni who—whether or not they believe in the Web 2.0 concept—stand in the center of the action. “I could not believe more that Web 2.0 is intrinsically a change in how we view, use, and think about the Internet and media overall,” he says. “Web 2.0 is not so much a revolution as a return to the original core values of the Internet as a democratic, participatory medium. Only now it’s even better as the average person (with broadband) has incredible and often free tools at their fingertips that enable them to use the medium as its creators intended … Everyone can now be both a consumer and creator of a site like SMITH … And tools like RSS and places like Digg and Newsvine mean that it’s now easier than ever for SMITH stories to spread like pollen across the net.” (For those more accustomed to getting their information above the fold of the newspaper, those are essentially sites that allow users to submit and vote on the day’s top articles or blogs and a technology that provides automated updates from one’s favorite websites.)

For Brett Hurt WG’99, CEO and founder of Bazaarvoice, Web 2.0 represents a rediscovery of word of mouth and “the underlying shift of power to consumers. The Internet truly becomes the global village where people truly can talk about a product or service or person in a positive or negative manner, and everybody has access to that,” he says.

Hurt cites a cautionary tale about the Kryptonite company, which had to recall its bike locks after a blogger wrote about picking one of them with a Bic pen. The item was picked up by other blogs until the story caught the attention of the mass media and the company could no longer ignore it, he says. Three years later, the top results of a Google search on Kryptonite bike locks remain references to that picked lock.

“This is an example of what Madison Avenue and others are trying to grapple with,” Hurt says. “One individual on one blog has that kind of power.”

Sept|Oct 07 Contents
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