Many believe 2010 will be the year of the “Semantic Web.” I have another idea: It should be the year of new Web semantics.
I had the unmistakable feeling that 2009 was the year of semantic backpeddling in the Web 2.0 sphere. Some of the most articulate Enterprise 2.0 apostles, after years of passionate evangelism, were suddenly watering their wine.
Take the words “social” and “revolution.” Only a couple years ago, it was fashionable -- indeed, an article of Web 2.0 faith -- to evangelize the tenets of the social media revolution. Web 2.0 was transforming our lives, with online social networking, disrupted business models, even Facebook political campaigns.
In the Cluetrain Manifesto, the Web 2.0 revolution’s founding charter published a decade ago, the authors -- Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger -- boldly trumpeted the “end of business as usual,” employing the language of revolution.
The book’s “95 theses” were an obvious allusion to the 95-point document that Martin Luther nailed to a church door in Wittenberg in 1517, triggering the Protestant Reformation. Cluetrain’s authors regarded Web 2.0 as a dramatic rupture with the past.
Yet today, Web 2.0 sometimes seems like a revolution that dare not speak its name. The bold semantics of social media have been discreetly abandoned for less alarming words like “evolution.” Web 2.0 experts now talk soothingly about “evolving” a company’s strategy towards an Enterprise 2.0 model. Even this Website, you may have noticed, is called “Internet Evolution.”
Is that really what Web 2.0 promised: evolution? When I last consulted Darwin’s theory, it seemed to me that evolutionary change takes a very long time. Like millions of years.
Now let’s look at the word “social.” Web 2.0 is the social Web, and its massively popular platforms -- Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter -- are social networks. The Enterprise 2.0 model in business brings the social dynamics of Web 2.0 networks into the corporate environment. That indeed is revolutionary.
It seems, however, that the word “social” has been expurgated from the Web 2.0 gospel. Last year, Enterprise 2.0 expert Dion Hinchcliffe, a highly respected Enterprise 2.0 expert, bemoaned that the word “social” was causing more harm than good.
This point was taken up by Andrew McAfee, who has just published a book on Enterprise 2.0. At a conference in San Francisco, McAfee warned fellow evangelists that the “S Word” was being overused.
I’m not knocking Hinchcliffe or McAfee. Both are highly regarded experts in the field who have written eloquently about “social business” designs. Other Web 2.0 evangelists, like Stowe Boyd, openly embrace the social dynamics of Enterprise 2.0; though still others, like Dennis Howlett, think it’s just “a crock.”
Lively debate should be encouraged. What we can observe, however, is that Web 2.0 evangelists, facing skeptics and doubters, are becoming nervously pragmatic about the religion that once inspired so much revolutionary zeal.
To be clear, the “S Word” debate is largely confined to the IT-dominated world of Enterprise 2.0. In marketing and PR, where many professionals now proudly call themselves “social media strategists,” Web 2.0 is a hot trend. No anxiety about the Web’s social revolution in those precincts.
The challenge for Enterprise 2.0 consultants who preach the virtues of Web 2.0 inside large organizations is much more daunting. There, social media is scary because it threatens established silos and hierarchies. Many managers think it’s a joke. As McAfee puts it, some dismiss Web 2.0 as “a sign that we’re going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities.”
No wonder the semantics of “social” have been quietly vanishing from the Enterprise 2.0 lexicon. Corporate clients don’t like to hear it.
That may be changing in 2010. The recent launch of collaboration software like Salesforce.com Inc. ’s Chatter, hyped for its Facebook-style user interface, is removing some of the fear factor from “social” business.
If Enterprise 2.0 is a social business model that is revolutionizing how companies are managed, maybe we should say it. Why the semantic candy wrapping of “evolution”? Web 2.0 should be a social business revolution that boldly speaks its name.
— Matthew Fraser is a Web 2.0 strategist, an adjunct professor at the American University of Paris, and senior fellow at INSEAD.