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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Kill My Landlord, Kill My Landlord

The distance between hope and reality with some Web 2.0 startups is vast, as noted by Om Malik and commenters on "People Power vs. Google."

It reminds me of an idea I had this week. Why on earth are all these tiny-to-midsized successful companies in downtown Toronto renting space in all these office buildings, instead of owning the space? Wouldn't we all be better off if we just got together and formed some kind of massive building ownership co-op covering 28 blocks of prime downtown real estate?

And then I woke up and realized there was no hope in hell.

The sceptics carry the day, for now, in the assessment of the potential for "social search". But it is important to remember:

  • The Internet and search themselves are (for the time being) democratizing, liberating forces
  • The premise of Google itself was democratic -- a link's a vote
  • Search companies like the Open Directory got big with so-called people power, but the premise, business model, and ability to automate wasn't strong enough to carry implementation through to full practicality
  • Promising niche startups like Topix.net are also riffing on the idea of people power -- Chris Tolles recently spoke of the impact of "citizen journalism" on news consumption and creation patterns
There are broad "people power" trends that will affect the status of today's "Internet search landlords." It'll be interesting, as always, to watch the ways in which the gigantic resource of the open Internet plus venture capital availability go up against brand and monopoly power. Need we recall that the Microsoft colossus has been beaten soundly (in this realm) by yet another feisty startup?

What would be truly remarkable? A feisty startup that topples today's (Certified Non-Evil) $125 billion colossus, that doesn't turn into an enormous privately-owned brand, but just a valuable service that people use.

Maybe the very problem is assessing the act of sharing information as something that needs to be mediated through (yet another) "company" and its "proprietary/groundbreaking technology." There's a lot of old technology lying around -- some of it controlled by existing massive monopolists -- and what we do with that technology is in itself groundbreaking.

So the #1 complaint about Web 2.0 rings the most familiar: it's old wine in new bottles. And, if bigger, traditional players facilitate "social search," is that any different, any better, any worse, than if a feisty startup does it? Arguably, it's less tied up with pecuniary gain, since the founders of the leading companies have already made their pile.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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