Web 2.0 narcissism and geeking out in Northeastern Wisconsin

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m in Appleton, Wisconsin for the holidays and aside from chilling out after a really amazing year, I wanted to see what was going on around here from a tech perspective. Back when we were putting together Open Hack Day, I got an email from Bob Waldron (who lives in Appleton), who was putting together Barcamp Milwaukee (along with Justin Kruger) on the same weekend as Open Hack Day. I told Bob that I would get in touch if I was ever in Appleton, so I sent Bob an email earlier this week and he set up a local geek gathering in short order. After hooking up with Bob, I was looking forward to talking tech and meeting tech enthusiasts in a place I had never visited before. This is one of the reasons I love the Internet — pulling something like this together wouldn’t have been possible (or at least so easy) 15 years ago.

Northeastern Wisconsin geek gatheringAs Bob was setting up this gathering, I came across “Love American Style: Web 2.0 and Narcissism” by Philip Dawdy, a “fine rant” (as Nick Carr called it). It’s worth reading the whole thing, but the argument boils down to this:

this whole Web 2.0, social networking, virtual community business is essentially a pornography of the self—a projected, fictionalized self that is then worshipped by the slightly less-perfect self. Human existence has been this way to a degree once we became the leisure society (am I dabbling in Veblen here? I think so.), but with the Web 2.0 we are so much more willing to spread our selves and our self-infatuations around. If you don’t believe me, cruise through MySpace—a house of mirrors if there ever was one—where we are all rock stars, hotties, vampires and gangstas with flava.

I don’t think that Dawdy’s argument is entirely invalid. What he says about MySpace is difficult to argue with and the writing itself is entertaining, I just think it’s the “half empty” point-of-view of the social value of the web. When I can use the Internet to connect with interesting people in any city in the world (not just the U.S.) and meet them face-to-face for a pleasant afternoon of conversation about things we’re all passionate about, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Meeting in person certainly takes a little more effort than commenting on someone’s blog or sending an email, but the Internet is ultimately the catalyst for building real relationships with people you might not have otherwise met (and this isn’t just “Web 2.0” — it goes all the way back to USENET, the WELL, etc).

After getting beat up a little by the blogosphere, Dawdy comes back to clarify his position:

Most commenters missed my global point that the Web 2.0 is essentially creating a mirror world in which narcissists can play in a weird context-free universe and that Google itself also does a fine job of creating its own context-free universe while stripping much revenue away from the mainstream media without adding any real value to the equation.

This is still “half empty” as far as I’m concerned. All of these tools probably do amplify narcissistic tendencies that already exist in our culture, but they also amplify our ability to connect, and I for one am happy to accept the tradeoff for now.

If you’re interested in hooking up with tech folks in Northeastern Wisconsin, here are some things you should check out:

(Above photo, L-R: Drew Fleck, Bob Waldron, Todd Hanson, and Justin Kruger. Lisa Zeise joined us earlier, but I forgot to snap the photo before she left!)

Widgets are the ringtones for the MySpace generation

Today, I was thinking about widgets and marketplaces like the Wallop Modder Network that allow for the buying and selling of widgets. The over-30 curmudgeon in me wondered, “why would anyone ever buy and sell silly little widgets for their blogs?” Then I remembered the always-surprising (at least to me) ringtone market, and a lightbulb went off: widgets are the ringtones for the MySpace generation.

(Of course, it’s much easier to charge a ringtone to a phone and have that bill go to your parents, but what’s stopping anyone from offering pay-by-mobile-phone widget options?).

Wikipedia as Unix man page

Lately, I’m finding an unanticipated (but not entirely surprising) use of Wikipedia as richer extended versions of Unix man pages. Who needs man man when you have Manual page (Unix)? I came to this conclusion when I was looking at the wget man page in my terminal last night and I kept having to re-run man wget as I paged past the options I wanted. Of course, man pages have been on the web for a long time (as the link in my prior sentence shows), but Wikipedia offers a lot more, at least in the case of wget. You learn how to use wget, but you also get criticisms of wget, history, and information on the development and release cycle, among other things.

From now on, man pages will be the last place I look. If I need to know how to use wget again, it won’t be man wget, it will be a search for “wget site:wikipedia.org“. Try “tar site:wikipedia.org” or “gzip site:wikipedia.org” to see it working with other commands.

Microformats are huge at Yahoo!

From the Yahoo! Local blog (which is itself new), a massive announcement about Yahoo! support of microformats:

Starting today, we’re happy to announce Yahoo! Local fully supports the hCalendar, hCard, and hReview microformats on almost all business listings, search results, events, and reviews.

In sheer volume, I’m pretty sure this means Yahoo! Local has the largest implementation of microformats on the web. In a broader sense, I think Yahoo! continues to lead the way in opening things up in big-bang ways. Good job, Vince, Andy, Ronnie, and Yahoo! Local team.

The Onion at Yahoo: Peter Koechley

The Onion and Web 2.0Today, I brought in Peter Koechley, managing editor of The Onion, for the weekly speaker series I run at Yahoo!

I love the Onion, and Peter’s talk did not disappoint. He took us through some of his favorite Onion headlines of the past, read some of the headlines he had written that didn’t ultimately make it (some of which were really good), surfaced a few actual reader letters (which were totally absurd), and talked about how The Onion is put together, both in print and online.

I loved the slide pictured at right, which read:

The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: we despise our users.

Besides despising users, Peter offered further evidence that The Onion is not a Web 2.0 company: “You guys haven’t acquired us yet.”

Reading 2.0 and microformats

Yesterday, I participated in the Reading 2.0 summit (organized by Peter Brantley of the California Digital Library), a small gathering in San Francisco about the future of digitized material, with the digitization of books being a primary topic. Tim O’Reilly did an amazing job of taking notes.

As Tim notes, I gave a short presentation about microformats at Yahoo! (borrowing heavily from Tantek Çelik and microformats.org, who I credited in an intro slide before I even got into the topic). Since my slot was a brisk ten minutes, I decided to briefly talk about what microformats are, but then go straight to the markup. This approach seemed to work a few years ago when I found myself explaining RSS a lot. I always found that pulling up an RSS feed and showing the the simplicity of the feed itself got the point across that RSS was not particularly complex. I think microformats are similar in that regard.

An interesting question came from Cliff Lynch, who asked if it might be possible to use microformats to mark up genomic information. I have to admit that I don’t know much at all about genomic information, but to the extent that this type of information is on the web, decentralized, and can be structured consistently (preferably modeled after an existing standard, as hCard is modeled after vcard), I don’t see why not. That’s the beauty of efforts like microformats — anyone with the ability to publish to the web now (which is everyone) can participate in creating a microformats standard by putting it into practice and sufficiently documenting it. hGenome, anyone?

For more on microformats, you can see a presentation that Tantek gave on a recent visit to Yahoo, and microformats.org. There is also a microformats-discuss mailing list.

An easy way to get started with microformats is to use the hCard creator to build your own hCard (see my hCard).

Again, be sure to read Tim’s notes. Really cool stuff.