Last night saw the first of Deirdre Molloy's Chinwag events, Wobble2.0: the London tech/media community's latest opportunity to answer the question "are we in a second bubble"?
The main themes covered by the speakers have already been summarised by Ian Delaney here - it was indeed an excellent panel, indeed one of the first I've seen at such an event that didn't make me think that many of the questions from the floor would have been better answered by the floor. (I remember with particular fondness the Beers & Innovations at Albanach last year in which one member of the panel quoted Tom Coates out of context only to find Tom sitting in front of him cheerfully pointing out what he'd really said.)
Two important points came out for me. One, by the Register's Andrew Orlowski, was that web2.0 is fundamentally about "presentation layer people trying to solve infrastructure problems" - a fantastic insight that blew away much of the superficiality of the current rhetoric.
The second is more a conclusion I drew later on the basis of the discussion than anything that was said in the forum. A number of the panellists challenged the idea that web2.0 is a bubble on the basis that companies are making real revenues, and ended by advising anyone considering launching a platform to concentrate on a revenue stream.
Well...perhaps. I would suggest that this is indeed an important way to think if you want to run a business and enjoy business-scale returns. Let's think for a moment about whether the truly transformative innovations in the digital space have achieved that, or even tried.
Tim Berners-Lee's world wide web, our industry's ur-innovation that rendered all previous media strategies obsolete (even if we're only just understanding that 15 years later) was simply given to the world. Linux, Firefox and the other open-source software projects that represent the main challenge to the very concept of software-as-business are likewise given away. Craigslist, the free classifieds platform that has swept print classifieds from underneath newspapers, has explicitly no interest in maximising its revenues (NYT). Blogging makes decent money for a handful of the A-listers (which some of them then give away to charity) but most bloggers are motivated by something other than financial reward. And BitTorrent, the killer-ap of the broadband revolution and the death-knell for current film monetisation strategies, is (like Napster before it) a peer-to-peer experience built without revenues attached. The one significant exception looks to be Google, that just announced it generates a billion dollars every month. But as I've said before, Google is not the exception because its phenomenally successful business model was stumbled upon once it had scaled.
The web2.0 bubble isn't about IPOs and take-overs. The web2.0 bubble is about businesses continuing to deny what web1991, TBL's original innovation, really means - the long-term unlikelihood of realising business-scale returns from digital. The world-changing innovations in our space have been undertaken with barely a thought for financial reward and many (most) of them remain almost entirely unmonetised. People hoping to derive business-scale margins are increasingly competing with free - software makers with open source, professional writers with hobbyist blogs, classifieds with Craigslist, Disney with BitTorrent. There are solutions to this, of course - some people are making money (or I'd be out of a job). But given that the key innovations in our space have not been about the money, I find the notion that web2.0 can necessarily be monetised by everyone who comes to the table...optimistic. And more than a little unrealistic. Some, but not all, of us are in a bubble. Digital makes business-scale returns harder to achieve because (to paraphrase William Gibson) while the value is here, it is increasingly evenly distributed.