You could say that last week’s Web 2.0 Summit lived handily up to its theme “Web Meets World.” You could also say that although I was present in the audience, never more than five rows back from the stage, I was in a major post-election daze throughout and, well, missed some things. Undeniably through this watery filter, as I sit this week and try to wrap up my thoughts on the event, what’s clearly in focus is that what the Web really met last week at the Summit was Politics. I might even try to tell you that’s the only thing — and the most important thing — it met.
Would you blame me? The day after Obama was elected President of the United States, the top-three trending topics on Twitter (say that three-times-fast!) were, in this order: Prop 8, web2summit, and Obama — and they stayed that way throughout nearly the entire conference.
What follows is my wrap, therefore, of the Web 2.0 Summit 2008: Web Meets Politics.
Intro: Web meets world
Fifteen years after television’s birth, the contours of the new medium were just emerging. The idea that this revolutionary new phenomenon — one busily reshaping the very fabric of society — might one day become just another application on a vast web of computers, well that idea wasn’t exactly in vogue …
So begins O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 Summit site on the overall conference theme. “Web meets world” to me means that even things you don’t think have anything to do with the Web have to do with the Web. From the “Transforming the Network to an Enterprise for the Warfighter” session delivered by fatigues-clad LTG Jeff Sorenson, to disaster-management tactics from Jesse Robbins — “many kinds of disasters mean many kinds of opportunities” — to disease and global warming and financial catastrophes and other “Really Big Problems” — the resounding question levied by “meeting the world” was an implied “can we fix it?” to which Tim O’Reilly, in the opening conference salvo, invoked Obama with the “Yes we can” as the collective Web 2 response. From the outset, politics set the stage.
Web meets the president
“Were it not for the Internet, Obama would not have been elected President,” said Arianna Huffington in Friday’s great panel, The Web and Politics (with John Heilemann, Arianna Huffington, Gavin Newsom, and Joe Trippi). “It wasn’t the age of the candidate that mattered in this election,” she continued, “It was the age of the ideas.”
Throughout the conference there was a lot of talk about how well Obama used online channels (most specifically Facebook) while campaigning (it was during this week that he also launched change.gov). Earlier in the Summit, Mark Zuckerberg had mentioned the tremendous success of Facebook Causes in particular during the election — growing “hundreds of thousands of people a day.” Gavin Newsom added that he was “proud to say I have more Facebook friends than any other politician outside of presidential candidates.” Clearly a sea-change has washed upon the country.
“Just as in the 60’s,” people compared, “a new medium became the dominant medium in this election.” Whereas TV was the “new” one-way broadcast medium when JFK used it so adeptly during his debate with Nixon, the Internet brings interactivity, dialog, and conversation to the mix, and voila: as Huffington said, “the truth intrudes into people’s living rooms.”
Web meets (dirty) politics
But there’s a flipside to the truth coming into our living rooms.
While acknowledging the sea-change, Newsom pondered, “how does this manifest itself in terms of shaping public policy?” I was glad to hear Newsom mention the need to address the “digital divide, saying that though Web 2.0 is meaningful, it’s “utterly meaningless to those who need this type of influence and engagement the most” – to those who aren’t online.
Then he indirectly referred to California’s Prop 8 when he mentioned he had his own “Howard Dean” moment broadcast all over YouTube (the “whether you like it or not” ad from the Yes campaign). He said, “The YouTube-ification of the world – I’m desperate to get it to go away and I can’t get it to go away.” Regarding the “always-on” internet-effect, tweeters wildly twittered his sound-bite “Authenticity – we’re all for it unless it’s the kind of authenticity we don’t like,” and he wondered “Are we more or less authentic if we’re always on the record?” Trippi replied that “No one can fake it 24 hours a day.”
I liked that Newsom’s bottom-line was that we should embrace it — and become more forgiving of mistakes — but thinks there will be a lot of collateral damage.
Speaking of collateral damage, at 44:10 in the above video, commencing the Q&A period, I got up shakingly and raised following, coming directly from my experience on the No On Prop 8 campaign (and here I quote myself self-consciously):
We’ve just experienced the terrible flipside of “truth into our living rooms,” which is that the Internet can also be used, with devastating effectiveness, to spread attacks and lies into our living rooms. Here are some specific examples from the fight against Proposition 8 — all true:
- Videos propagated on YouTube in which the official “Yes” campaign equated gays with Hitler
- No On Prop 8’s Web site attacked by denial-of-service (which we overcame mightily, thanks to our Web techs)
- Personal attacks from people in the blogosphere throughout open, unmoderated threads (when another side might have had closed threads)
- Videos propagated by the official “Yes” campaign using children without their parents’ agreement or permission
- Gay people (and straight alike) getting anti-gay “Yes” ads served on their site because the yes campaign invested heavily in Google AdWords
In this era of Web-meets-Politics, the No On Prop 8 campaign indeed built a strong community — http://www.noonprop8.com/action/engage-online/social-networking — and yes it had power — that’s why we were so attacked — but the discussion of the “truth and democratization” of the Internet needs to be moderated with acknowledgement and protection against and attacks and lies, or else those with money and power (and fear) will continue to wield more influence over those with less.
Newsom acknowledged that the “forces on many sides are still at play,” but said he has “tremendous optimism” for the new era of Web-meets-Politics.
Web meets TV
Consuming new media, Huffington said, means that you are engaged — it’s like galloping on horse, not just watching from the couch in the living room. Further abstracting the television, there was also an engaging panel that amounted to a handbook of sorts for hacking the conventional understanding of it. In the session The Media Business: New Approaches, Ken Auletta talked with Joel Hyatt (Current TV) and Evan Williams (Twitter) about how they set about to unlock our televisions for the debates and for the election.
“TV is the biggest medium in America that hasn’t been democratized yet,” said @ev. “Twitter changes how people connect with people – if you expand that to a very large user base, it can change culture.” Pointing out that it’s not just social, Evan continued, “it has potential to see aggregate real-time information, like during the election.” Add Current TV to the mix and what happens?
“With Twitter and this broadcast model together, what happens is that you can get alternate viewpoints WHILE they’re being broadcast” -@ev
“Opening up these closed systems, empowering people to tell these stories — is very important. Citizen journalism has already proven that,” said Current TV’s Joel Hyatt. Not to worry about the expected monetization question, either: “Toyota’s doubled their money in ads on Current in the last year,” he continued. The goal of Current TV is nothing less than to “take the magic of the Internet and move that magic to TV.”
The political ramifications of this — beyond Palin bingo or Nixon-debates — are riper now than they have ever been before.
Green is the new Web
The Internet’s favorite color, green, also made a strong showing at the Summit. The importance of sustainability covered the gamut in talks about food (Michael Pollan), cars (Shai “cars-as-a-service” Agassi), “microenergy” credits, and of course global warming.
Calling himself a “recovering politician,” Al Gore took stage late at the summit to a standing ovation, saying that the “redeeming quality of the election” was that “all humans are created equal” and that this “would not have been possible without the Internet.”
Heralding “World 2.0” with a powerful, inspiring keynote, he also earned praise for introducing a Unified Smart Grid’ vision for repowering the USA.
Tim O’Reilly had an interesting dialog with Shai Agassi — from A Better Place — talking about the need for cars to be independent from their fuel models — aaaaaaaand, he also invoked Joe the Plumber! Said Shai in closing to Hummer: “Stop making tanks, start making cars!”
(Read the CNet story on that here: Electric cars of the future at the Web 2.0 Summit).
Web meets the iPhone
My last overarching (political, of course) theme is about the device-driven world. I call it “Web meets the iPhone” because — what, there are other devices? Pandora made a thankful showing on the iPhone early on, the first workshop I attended had to do with iPhone applications, and it just seemed like everything (except Qik and me) was on the iPhone, including @lwaldal (“so tired of the lousy iPhone, safari crashes, stupid autocorrect, no copycutpaste, but at least it has service”).
Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker brought us a little perspective on this, merrily calling us to mind that innovation in wireless products and services is accelerating — and “changes should create + destroy significant wealth.” See her – as always – great presentation (PDF).
What in the world makes devices a politics-driven theme, you ask? Aside from my aforementioned filtering and exhaustion? Witness:
SF Civic Center on November 5 - Courtesy Chris Burwell
Yes, many of the lights are candles, but count (on) the devices.
In closing, I conclude (and beseech), for the Web 2.0 Summit 2008:
WEB MEETS POLITICS: Be a device-driven world — Not a divisive world!