I'm still processing the many great insights from the next09 conference in Hamburg, one of Europe's leading digital/creative/marketing forums and one that stands out from the conference circuit because of its unique German-international focus (bilingual program, 80% international participants, many international speakers). This year's theme was "Share Economy," and the 1,300 attendees consisted of European VCs and angel investors, web 2.0 entrepreneurs, media, creative agencies, and execs from German corporations (from BMW to Deutsche Bank to Deutsche Telekom).
Jeff Jarvis: "The Great Restructuring"
The first day, the keynote day, was a little disappointing, maybe because expectations were so high. Jeff Jarvis warmed up the crowd with his trademark "What Would Google Do?" Powerpoint deck. While a terrific thinker and speaker, for some reason he and the audience did not really click although he presented a lot of thought-provoking content. The rather stiff response may be attributed to the fact that the attendees were either too familiar with what they heard or felt slightly overwhelmed. Or maybe they were indeed excited - but too German to show it…
Umair Haque, who followed Jarvis, faced an even tougher, albeit partly self-inflicted challenge: explaining the new paradigm of "Constructive Capitalism" in 45 minutes. That's like asking Marx to walk you through his Communist Manifesto in a Twitter chat. It didn't help, certainly, that Haque used the much gushed-about Prezi presentation software; all the zooming in and out was dizzying and, if anything, exposed the lack of stringency in his outline.
Fortunately, Haque had an opportunity to correct this first impression and reiterate some of his thoughts on a panel with Jarvis a day later, which turned out to be a much more suitable format for his ideas on the transformation of capitalism. He also took the occasion to rebut the attacks of Andrew Keen ("The Cult of the Amateur"), who, on the opening day, had chastised Haque (and all the other thinkers he considers to be under the dark influence of Silicon Valley) for propagating rampant free market liberalism and a dangerous new radical individualism in the guise of the social, consumer-empowered share economy that the conference was celebrating. Keen poignantly remarked that Twitter was getting us back into the 18th century: rather than liberating us from institutional hierarchies, it would reinforce an old power structure and an all too human division of roles: between those who follow and those followed.
Andrew Keen: "Digital Vertigo"
Jeff Jarvis & Umair Haque: "When Money Talks"
Keen accused Haque et al of naïveté and insisted that Google and the other web juggernauts were not "leveling the playing field" through link love (by sharing the scarcest resource on the web: attention), as Haque had claimed, but were rather using it to expand their pursuit of world dominance. In Keen's eyes, Google's openness is nothing but a suave mechanism to foment a monopoly in the attention markets. In the same vein, a party pooper in the audience asked Jarvis: "If free sharing is the future of business, why doesn't Google share its page rank algorithm?" Jarvis' response wasn't all too convincing: concerns over malicious abuse of the data. Hmm. So much for radical transparency and trust as overriding principles in the share economy.
To Google's (and Jarvis') defense, one could counter with Haque's sharp line: "When we're all hyper-connected, the cost of evil goes up." True. Moreover, Google does provide real value as it has created a win-win-win business model (advertisers, consumers, Google) that is vastly different from the toxic chunk Haque bemoaned in the non-sustainable and ultimately value-free products that toppled capitalism as we knew it: the Hummer, fast food, derivatives, etc. And yet, if advertising is the admission that you have a mediocre product, and that it is in fact an expression of "failure," as Jarvis put it, then it is hard to reconcile this view with the fact that advertising remains the main revenue stream in the very Google economy from which Jarvis wants us all to learn.
Despite the flaws in Jarvis' and Haque's thinking, however, I am eager to defend them. It's easy to deconstruct constructive visions of the future as ill-informed descriptions of present realities but it is a much bigger task to actually come up with a positive vision. Keen, the rebel with a good cause, does nothing but throwing a bomb, which he readily admits, but he falls short of offering an alternative to the frameworks Jarvis and Haque and others provide in response to the fundamental crisis of capitalism.
Google wouldn't care about any of this intellectual arm-wrestling all that much. It is fully consumed with doing what it does best: firing out beta-products and services, successfully failing by failing rapidly. One mistake that it made, however, may arguably have lasting implications. It didn't buy Twitter. And so the question, it seems, is no longer "What would Google do?" but "What will Twitter do?" Does Twitter mark the beginning of the end of the Google economy?
Jyri Engeström, who sold Twitter-competitor Jaiku to Google and is now a Google employee, might have a clue. On a panel with social media guru Chris Messina he offered some good insights on micro-blogging trends on the web and defended the new Google Profiles ("you have to opt in"). Messina seconded him and brought up another interesting point that established the context for upcoming business models in the Twitter economy: the "glocalization" of Twitter. He described how Twitter is failing to extend the real-time conversation to the whole world, simply because of time zone differences: one part of the world is always sleeping when you're tweeting. The instant social web conversation is therefore asynchronous, after all, and it is an interesting thought experiment to envision services that bridge the time zone gap and deliver tweets when the recipients can actually receive them (keeping them on the top of the feed), almost like an echo across time zones. What if the real value of real-time was the delivery of tweets when it really mattered?
The whole time dimension of Twitter is uncharted but valuable territory, and there are other add-ins, integrators, and localization services that will emerge in this vibrant new ecosystem. The conversation on the social web is as rich as the human communication (if not richer), and it is just beginning to fully emerge.
What everyone agreed on at next09 is that the next big frontier on the web (and in the Twitter economy) is how businesses talk to their customers. We are witnessing an irrevocable convergence of players. Conversational services such as Twitter and Yammer are moving into the social networking space and are acquiring the credentials of social networks and collaboration tools, while traditional social networking sites such as XING, LinkedIn or Facebook are embedding conversational features to catch up with the irresistible pull of real-time communication.
For both groups, and in fact for all other companies, Umair Haque's advice is golden: Take one of the big ideals (democracy, peace, transparency, equality, etc.) and apply it to an ailing industry that is in need of transformation or at least some serious disruption: healthcare, finance, news, energy, government – you name it. Combine that with the principles of the Twitter economy – transparency, instantification, collaboration, and free sharing – and you have a winner.