Something is changing on the web. We have lost some of the giddy enthusiasm that has surrounded the web since 2004. It was then that Tim O’Reilly defined Web 2.0 as a platform that leveraged collective intelligence. There is still a ton of interest this idea, but many of the recent conversations we have had about the web are colored by concern.
Though it is not often stated, I think insiders feel the web is coming of age, and they are wondering what’s next. It is not that they expect something new on the scale of the web, but they are worried that the insight that Tim defined – the leverage behind services like Flickr, del.icio.us, Digg, and Twitter – is now broadly understood. They are not surprised there has been a flood of new services trying to mine this vein. The problem is the technically savvy core community of users whose early embrace fueled the growth of these services is running up an attention deficit. Any new service that expects this group to invest time and energy will need to displace the attention those users invest in existing services that have already achieved substantial network effects. That is not going to be easy.
Two things will need to happen if the recent pace of innovation on the web is going to be sustained over the next few years. The next generation of services will need to have an impact on the real world and the real economy, not just an attention economy driven by self expression and discovery online. These new services will also need to reach real people, many of who use few if any web services today.
Tim makes the argument for using the web to attack real world problems in this post: What good is collective intelligence if it doesn’t make us smarter
. Tim’s point is that the hive mind of the blogosphere is useless if the rubber never hits the road. We can post and comment and tweet and tag and follow all we want in cyberspace; but if it ultimately doesn’t change anything in real space, we haven’t really accomplished anything.
"I've argued all along that the real heart of Web 2.0 is the ability of networked applications to harness collective intelligence. Yes, you can harness collective intelligence to build amazing internet businesses, as the past five years have shown us.
But what good is collective intelligence if it doesn't make us smarter?
In an era of looming scarcities, economic disruption, and the possibility of catastrophic ecological change, it's time for us all to wake up, to take our new ‘superpowers’ seriously, and to use them to solve problems that really matter."
So in Tim’s view, what’s next is the intersection of cyberspace and real space. John Battelle calls it Web Meets World
. We agree with Tim, John, Umair
, and everyone else who argues that the real impact of the web will ultimately be in its ability to organize people online to make a difference offline.
But none of these folks make the related point that for the web to have a greater impact going forward it will not only have to touch the real world, it will have to reach real people.
At USV we have been thinking about this challenge for the past several months. Our most recent portfolio company, Meetup, has been thinking about this challenge since it was founded in 2002. Organizing people online to make a difference offline has been the central mission of Meetup since the ning. The team there has always understood that there was a difference between collective intelligence and collective action.
But the folks at Meetup were prescient in another way as well. They knew all along that the web would only reach its potential if it reached real people. Many readers of this blog will have been to tech Meetups. Most know of the political Meetups that powered Howard Deans 2004 campaign, and have informed every politician’s 2008 campaign. What may come as a surprise is that only 1% of Meetups are tech related, and only 5% are politically related. Most address the everyday needs of real people. Meetup, for example, organizes over 2300 moms Meetup groups in 1100 cities in 11 countries.
So we are thrilled to be an investor in a company that has been organized since its inception around the key insight that we believe will drive the next several years of innovation on the web – the need to solve real problems in the real world for real people. But we are pleased to be an investor for many other reasons as well. We have known the founder, Scott Heiferman since 1995. At the ripe old age of 36, he is a veteran of the New York start up scene, with four notches on his belt that I can count. The company he leads today so perfectly embodies our investment thesis that we have often used it as an example. It feels, in a way, like Meetup was always meant to be a Union Square Ventures portfolio company. Many of our other portfolio companies are aligned in spirit if not in practice. Check out these Etsy Meetups
Obviously we think Meetup is perfectly positioned to lead the web to the world. It is, in many ways, the original Web Meets World company. It is also a great place to work and is, at the moment, looking for great people to work there