Best of the Web
Destinations like MySpace and YouTube prove the Internet is where you go to broadcast your life (and watch other people's)
We've gotten cozy with the Web, clicking through sites as easily as we do TV channels with the remote control. Now, quit lollygagging and get to work! A new Web is emerging, and it depends on our sweat to succeed. Hundreds of new sites are trying to draw us out of our chairs and deeper into the cybersphere.
This is the new participatory Web: blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networks, forums. While connecting has always been central to the Internet, we were too distracted by those bargains on eBay, Amazon, and Expedia to notice. But in the past few years, behind-the-scenes upgrades have made it easier for ordinary people to take control of the Web, to broadcast their perspectives, whether that happens in a video clip of a guy demonstrating the "Evolution of Dance" or a downloadable recording of weekly Bible verses in Klingon. And all that expression is fast becoming more of a conversation. "The original [Web] browser was a one-way tool for reading, not writing," says Wendy Hall, a computer scientist at the University of Southampton in England. "In effect, we now can write on other people's websites."
Of course, this evolution of the Internet also is provoking a new gold rush, led by the sales of a few high-profile sites that have succeeded in sucking us in, including sensations like post-your-life's-story MySpace, which sold for $580 million, and the post-your-choppy-video YouTube, worth $1.65 billion. Think about it: We did the real work on those sites. Even Google qualifies among the new ilk, generating its immense wealth on the back of Web users-it measures the popularity of sites in ranking its search results.
It all translates into a whole new generation, to hear the evangelists talk. Wannabes already are trying to repeat the success of the dedicated social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. But equally telling is that every new website seems built on a plan that includes milking its users' efforts. For example, a company called Riya has developed software that can recognize faces in photos. Technologically, it's an impressive and useful advance. Still, Riya.com has made itself about networking users, who by working together can put more names to the faces in photos than they could working alone. Social networking alone won't guarantee a site's success, says Riya CEO Munjal Shah: "But you won't succeed without it."
Indeed, many sites already are feeling the effect of social networking on their bottom lines. Those that integrate socializingsuch as Wikipedia.com, an encyclopedia built entirely by usersgrow to the tune of millions of new visitors. Those that don't, like Encarta.com, stagnate, according to a recent report by the Pew Internet Project. The new approach merges two facts, says Susannah Fox, a coauthor of the report: "Everybody wants to be social, and everybody's online." Well, not everyone. But the trend is magnified when looking at young people. "They don't even think about "going online," Fox says. "Their lives are online."
A group of scientists, including Hall at Southampton, are trying to establish an academic field to study the Web's impact; they're surprised at the social links fostered by Internet technologies that researchers have unleashed. "How people use them changes what [the tools] are," she says. In other words, what we do online is spinning a whole new Web.
This story appears in the November 20, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.