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Welcome to the Stream

Web 2.0 is dead, eclipsed by data-driven content and 'live' feeds. Can media and marketers adapt to the Net's next phase?

Photo Source: Ralph Crane//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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The future of the Internet has a branding problem: It’s here, but no one knows what to call it.

Eight years ago, the future had a name—Web 2.0—but what that meant remains vague to this day. John Battelle (the chairman of Federated Media) and Tim O’Reilly (founder of O’Reilly Media), who have gone on to make a great deal of money from the Web 2.0™ conference they launched in 2003, took a stab at it when they said it would be about the Web becoming a “platform” for software and services. A serviceable enough definition at the time—and for eight years since then everyone has nodded their heads in agreement and said, “Yes, a platform,” as if they understood, while simultaneously shelling out thousands of dollars in conference fees to find out why they were nodding.

Many no doubt will go with the flow again this week, when Battelle’s and O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit (latecomer’s walk-up cost: an extravagant $4,695) takes place in San Francisco. Only they won’t be hearing about the “Web as platform” anymore. Conferences like this are trafficking in a whole new set of terms—from “the social graph,” to the “real-time Web,” to the “semantic Web,” to (of course) “Web 3.0,” to “the Data Frame”—the theme of this year’s Web 2.0 event.

It’s all an attempt to describe the ongoing shift to a “live” Web experience—where a stream of media (not to be confused with streaming media), constructed on the fly out of databases, will be tailored uniquely to each consumer. That shift has profound implications for both content providers and advertisers—no matter what it ends up being labeled.

The man who invented the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, recognizing the growing importance of data, coined the term Giant Global Graph in 2007 to describe what was going to subsume his WWW. (It has yet to be widely adopted.) Indeed, there’s so much talk about databases and the Web these days that the people writing conference materials find themselves reaching for ever more breathless rhetoric to emphasize its importance.

“We live in a world clothed by data,” the Web 2.0 Summit’s introductory statement says. “…Data is not only the Web’s core resource, it is at once both renewable and boundless. …We’ll use data as a framing device to understand the state of the Web.”

Rhetorical overreach aside, the fundamental point remains: The data-driven Net has arrived. Much of the way digital media has been built since 1994 is about to die off—starting with the idea of the Web “page” itself. Social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, and news-filtering apps for tablets, like Flipboard and Zite, are just the beginning of the shift to a “live” Web that streams discrete bits of data to your devices. (A long lost, early Web term for this was “push” media.)

What’s in the stream? Your LinkedIn, Flipboard, and Facebook page of today are previews.

“Every millisecond there are 800 million personalized newspapers created on Facebook,” Carolyn Everson, the company’s head of global advertising, said recently during a real-time Internet panel in New York, part of the city’s Advertising Week event.

And it’s not just on Facebook that the concept of the “homepage” is being replaced by a constantly updating window on the world that’s unique to each user, pulled in discrete chunks from sources all over the Internet. In the tablet world, for example, your iPad Flipboard app offers a story flow that can include a selection of news sources aggregated by Flipboard’s staff, windows into your own favorite media sources, and info from your Twitter and Facebook feeds. In other words,  some of those chunks might have been curated by your friends, others by professional editors, and some by machine intelligence that scans your interests and makes suggestions.

It’s no coincidence that Everson refers to “personalized newspapers”—Facebook borrows liberally from traditional media, peppering members’ windows with labels like “News Feed,” “Recent Stories,” and the “Ticker.”

In fact,  much of the material Facebook delivers—such as the stories in the News Feed—is clipped from “old media.” The irony is obvious: Old media players slammed sites like Huffington Post and Newsr for aggregating such clips, but those same players are happy to have Facebook or Flipboard, say, do it when they can cast it as a distribution play. They’ll partner on new apps and shared membership log ins while scattering Facebook “Share” and “Like” buttons (along with similar buttons for LinkedIn and Twitter and Google Plus) on their sites in the hope that those HuffPo-like snippets of content make it into users’ streams.

As Terry Kawaja, the Internet consultant and investment banker who hosted the panel where Everson appeared, put it—reaching back to the hoary ’90s analogies of the Information Superhighway—content providers see services like Facebook as “on-ramps to get content to the people where they’re living.” If that sounds like the rationalizations offered during that era for content providers signing deals with AOL, the “Facebook is the new AOL” analogy is quickly becoming its own cliche.

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