SAN FRANCISCO — Anyone tired of Web 2.0 topics and discussion, and the current venture-capital-fueled hype, would have been advised to stay far away from the Supernova conference here. The conference site bills it as “the only event that assembles the most compelling people and companies from the converging worlds of computing, telecom, and digital media to put decentralization issues into meaningful social and business contexts.” That’s quite a mouthful, but event organizer Jeanne Logozzo explained it a bit better.
“The idea of the conference originally came from my co-organizer Kevin Werbach who, because of his background at the FCC, was interested in exploring the idea of the decentralization and dispersion of information on the Internet and the opportunities and problems that might cause for the business world.” Logozzo and Werbach have found through the years that this goes both ways: Internet trends affect business, industries and government, but business, industries and government policies also affect the Internet.
Supernova has been around for six years, and while it pre-dates the Web 2.0 idea (and, as organizers point out, is not a Web 2.0 conference), this year’s edition seemed to be quite heavy with social media topics. Plus, the elite folks in that realm — including bloggers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs — weighed in on topics ranging from security to regulation to the workplace. As you might expect, the folks at the conference made a lot of references to the “users of the Internet,” but very much in the abstract, as if those people were of another species, and not in the room.
Workplace Web Issues
Since the soul of this conference is the web and the business world, I thought I’d get a great sense for that from “The New Enterprise Disorder Roundtable,” which asked the question: “How do organizations apply order and structure when users are influencing the new corporate culture?” From its description, it doesn’t really sound like this discussion would be about Web 2.0, but ultimately that was the focus.
The panel was led by Nextpage CTO Tom Ngo, and included Mark Bergman, CTO of Symantec; Brian Kellner, general manager of RSS reader company NewsGator; Amy Wohl of Wohl Associates; Parker Harris, co-founder of Salesforce.com, and David Weinberger, author and fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.
The main theme that emerged from this conversation between business leaders and tech experts is that the tech support people in organizations are to blame for squelching the opportunities for businesses to grow through the use of innovative web applications. While employees might appear to be unproductive as they spend work time on Facebook or Twitter, some of the people on this panel — mostly upper management types — implied that businesses might learn from their more web-savvy employees. One example given was from a tech leader whose blog-addicted employee had found Dell’s product road map online, something that Dell probably wouldn’t want leaked, but might prove beneficial to other companies and help them be competitive.
So why don’t companies let employees use more social media and web applications? Because, said Wohl and others, IT people want complete and total control of what is happening on their network, lest they be held accountable for any unexpected havoc that might ensue. For that reason, what employees are able to access during work hours is restricted and any unauthorized activity is quickly reprimanded.
Panelists said that management is unable to harness the knowledge and connectedness of its web-savvy employees for the good of the business. Often, it’s because they aren’t aware of these skills. Ngo asked, “How would I know that I have this Twitter-addicted person on my team, and that this person could have great ideas for the business because she is so ‘in the know’?”
The problem is that most businesses come from a hierarchical top-down tradition. If Sara uses Twitter all day but works in the lower ranks, it’s unlikely that the business-beneficial ideas she derives from using social networking tools are likely to make its way up to management. And even if it they did, would anyone believe her?
The conclusion of the panel was that businesses need to be more open to social networking, and have more open local networks to allow their employees to access the web tools that make their lives easier, to the ultimate benefit of the business. But I doubt the age-old problem of bosses not listening to employees will be solved with that, and the conversation seemed futile to me, especially because this kind of “disruption” is far from new.
Blogger Jay Cross attended the session and on his blog called the conversation “a dog’s breakfast…I’ve been working on a framework to help organizations cross the chasm to Web 2.0 knowledge and informal learning. I expected to gain new insights. It didn’t happen.”
Connected Innovators: The Pitch Fest
Business in this bubbly moment of Web 2.0 can be harrowing. There are so many companies that seem like mere clones of the ones before, and others are so gimmicky that it’s hard to believe investors would actually pay them half a mind. In the “Connected Innovators” session, 13 entrepreneurs were given five minutes each to pitch their shiny new web applications before a captive audience which included some of the country’s most prominent venture capitalists. As someone who loves hearing about new web applications, I was excited to attend this part of the conference. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations, either because the five-minute time limit put undue pressure on the presenting companies or there just weren’t a lot of innovative or new applications.
The pitched companies were as much alike as they were different: two mobile entertainment applications, two search companies (one for video, another for people), several content aggregation applications, and “discovery” or recommendation sites. A company called Adaptive Blue wants to give users a “structured web through content aggregation and discovery.” Another called Aggregate Knowledge wants to do the same, but in a different way and for retail. A service called ZenZui looks to provide a richer mobile experience, while another called Zing looks to do the same but by leveraging synching.
To be fair, the applications were not all homogenous, and some had really great features, but it just seemed like they were all either playing off each other or off of the already established version of what they are trying to do.
Then came the dreaded “feedback session,” in which the hopeful entrepreneurs hear what investors and analysts think of their products. The panel, which included Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital, entrepreneur Julie Hanna Farris, and entrepreneur and blogger Paul Kedrosky seemed to agree with my take, saying that the applications presented were “FNAC” — “features not a company” — likely to fall short of transforming the way people do things and destined to be “merely acquired” by some giant like Google.
I can’t help but think that most of the entrepreneurs in the room would be fine with that. The mass acquisitions of late seem to be fomenting not creativity but a drive to create what’s most likely to get bought.
Notably missing from the presentations and the sessions seemed to be a sense for who Internet users really are. The words “user experience” and “what users really want” came up a lot, but without much substance or insight into what moves and drives people on the web. The people behind the business of the Internet and those in boardrooms seem to think they know a lot about what we the users want and what employees are using the web for, and in some cases they probably do. But the detached way in which all of this is discussed makes me wonder.
[To read coverage of the second day of the conference, go here.]
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.