Remember when everything didn't need to have a social-networking angle to it? When you didn't have to pretend that things only really got interesting if they morphed into mash-ups, or if content harnessed "the wisdom of crowds," wiki-style? When nobody was obsessed with creating "the next MySpace"?
Ah, such sweet, innocent times.
I'd almost advocate turning back the clock a bit from our Web 2.0 world -- if only I believed we really lived in a Web 2.0 world. Web one-and-a-half, maybe. Web 1.7, probably. Web 1.9, if you're feeling generous.
But Web 2.0? Nah.
Because I don't believe we've been making a lot of progress lately when it comes to webby culture. Everybody is pretending they're pushing the envelope -- but, in fact, they're mostly shuffling envelopes. And if you looked inside of 'em, chances are you'd find most to be rather empty.
Case in point: all the recent hype (including a column in this very publication) about Twitter, the "nanoblogging" service that enables users to send short "tweets" (text posts) via their cellphones (or other means of input, such as instant messengers and other desktop apps) so their friends and acquaintances can keep track of what they're up to. And vice versa.
You can imagine circumstances in which this might be useful -- such as last month's South by Southwest music, film and interactive conferences in Austin, Texas. Twitter, which launched in beta last year, blew up there when a critical mass of brand-name bloggers used the service to tip off friends and acquaintances to where the conference "action" was at any given time.
But you can just as easily imagine circumstances in which Twitter would be pretty useless. Most circumstances, really. On the Twitter.com homepage, just below the service's brief statement of purpose ("A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing?"), you can view random tweets, such as these three, which I culled moments ago:
ian_hocking: Having a nap in the hope my feverish symptoms will abate.
Davidmohara: Attempting to retrieve the two hours of my life I lost in that last meeting.
MrGuilt: Coming back from lunch.
Twitter enthusiasts in the blogosphere have been touting Twitter as some sort of instant-gratification embodiment of Web 2.0, but if you ask me, Twitter ain't progress -- it's just useless, undifferentiated, self-indulgent crap.
Of course, somewhere someone is calling Twitter tweets "user-driven social content" or somesuch -- and is persuading a venture capitalist to invest in a scheme that "monetizes" the seemingly vibrant, rapidly growing Twitter "community."
Of course, this sort of mentality is par for the course in a world warped by MySpace -- the gazillion-pound gorilla that's completely perverted the semi-useful notions of web "community," "user-generated content" and "stickiness."
This past winter, Parks Associates released a study showing that teenagers are using e-mail less and less as they increasingly use more immediate, more gratifying means such as texting and posting on MySpace to communicate with friends.
That is what MySpace is largely about: glorified e-mail -- e-mail made public. I'm sorry, but endless messages that read "Hey, dude! Thanks for adding me [as a friend]" are not content -- or at least not monetizable content.
Just because something has been typed on a screen (a computer screen, a cellphone screen, whatever) does not automatically make it media or content. The vast majority of messages typed on MySpace (and Facebook and other social-networking sites) will never, ever be read again after they scroll off users' main pages. MySpace is all about what "friends" said five minutes ago or five days ago -- not five months ago.
Meanwhile, Twitter, with its 140-character limit, makes the "conversation" within the web "community" even more inane, piecemeal and ultra-fleeting.
The truly embarrassing thing about social-networking buzz is that some of the biggest Web 2.0 hype-ists are aging Web 1.0 refugees and/or flat-out-old people who are so out of touch that they automatically presume anything young people are "talking" (or IMing or texting or twittering) about is meaningful and monetizable. I suppose if you're old and clueless and you glance at a typical MySpace page, you can mistake the visual and verbal cacophony for some sort of brave new world, a hotbed of "collaborative" and "unmediated" content. And I suppose the illusion is helped by the fact that MySpace pages often have cool soundtracks going. (If only I could rig things so an Arcade Fire song automatically streamed anytime I started yammering on!)
But mindless, ephemeral drivel is mindless, ephemeral drivel. And if tomorrow someone finds a way to automatically post transcripts on the web of every last telephone conversation every teenager or 20-something has henceforth -- well, that's mostly going to be mindless drivel too.
Here's the thing: When anything that has even the faintest whiff of "social networking" gets automatic attention and VC cash, it prevents actual good webby ideas from progressing. In other words, while social-networking sites and apps certainly have their place, the excessive focus on creating some variant or subset of "the next MySpace" is preventing real innovation from occurring in the current web-dev ecology/economy.
Here's all I really want from Web 1.9, or 2.0, or 3.0, or whatnot: communication and content-management technologies that increase the signal-to-noise ratio rather than decrease it.
I want meaning, not gibberish.
I want clarity, not fog.
Is that too much to ask?