Eighteen-year-old New Yorker Sophie is not trying to catch up to the accelerating pace of Web change. The Web is trying to catch up to her.
Once the school day ends, she says, the line blurs between online and offline. She does her homework with the chat client open. "Wikipedia is probably my best friend right now," she says, adding that Wi-Fi means she's always connected. She dips in and out of fashion blogs, big media like InStyle.com, and forums. MySpace profiles, with their mediocre design and look-at-me explicitness hold little appeal. "There is something very contrived about it," she says.
As a beta tester for CondeNet's new Flip.com, Sophie found something closer to the blend she was looking for - high media production values applied to user-generated content and woven into social networking. She chose the "sponsor" for her profile page (Vera Wang) and she used Web tools to make public scrapbooks ("Flipbooks") that look more like glossy magazines. Members flip through each other's self-expressive books, offer encouragement, swipe ideas, and generate new trends in days (just like the magazine world). In fact, Flipbooks are where big media mash it up with user-generated impulses, as girls blend their own videos and music with bins of CondeNet material. Sponsors like Nordstrom's and Nike don't advertise per se, but get into Sophie and her friends' mixes by providing media assets they can paste into their books. For Sophie, it is more basic. "It's a network of girls embracing their individuality and supporting each other's desire to distinguish themselves." This is the prehistoric edge of the Web's next generation, already dubbed "Web 3.0," where big media and marketing assets blend seamlessly with people's desire for both self-expression and forging connections.
"What will distinguish Web 3.0 is the professionalization of 2.0," says Mike Bloxham, director of insight and research at Ball State's Center for Media Design. Users' tools for creating their own content are accelerating even as big media places more of its prized TV shows, music videos, and news stories online.
The line between professional and amateur content will blur, but more importantly, media properties and personal lives will mingle in new ways.
Beyond the media mash-ups of 2.0 is the collaborative media experience of 3.0. At Lycos Cinema and the upcoming Joost, social networking meets video as groups of people simultaneously watch and chat about media while online. "We're moving into a world of on-demand content and virtual socialization married together on the Web," says Brian Kalinowski, COO of Lycos. Sophisticated big media will retain a central place, but audiences will add experience with comments, social input, and links to other media. "As we go into 3.0, the community-building of content is going to be far more important," Kalinowski says.
Like Sophie, as we invest more time online, and expose more intimate parts of ourselves while doing so, both media and brands will enable fully immersive virtual experiences, where the user is both audience and maker of media. Beyond the currently popular simulated world, Second Life, major media properties like MTV's "The Hills" and Showtime's "L Word" are enticing fans to enter as 3D avatars, interact with cast members, and even build their own homes. "Entertainment companies can make an ecosystem parallel to TV, " says Sibley Verbeck, CEO of virtual world marketer Electric Sheep Company. But ultimately, he foresees virtual and offline shows blending, so actions in one inform events in the other.
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As media becomes more virtual in 3.0, then so do we. The next Web will be more of a parallel world with virtual Yous. "We are exploring technologies like 'persistent avatars,' says Betsy Book, director of product management at Makena, which makes the engine behind MTV's new virtual worlds. "An avatar identity would be closely aligned with your personal identity and could be used anywhere," says Book. She adds that avatars tend to be idealized visions of ourselves, and one of the ways they gain this identity is by allying with media brands, putting "Abercrombie" in their screen names and wrapping themselves in virtual designer clothing. In an online realm where people become media properties, then brands become even more important markers of who we are. "Brands play a role in defining ourselves," says Joe Marchese, whose company Archetype Media promises to target advertising to "emotional content." "Brand advertising fits into our lives, the ecosystem, if we figure out how it adds value," he adds.
The Web itself will add value to our lives by becoming more like a shadow self, a parallel Me. The next Web will apply massive artificial intelligence to our past online behaviors, personal information, and what we're doing now. "Beyond avatars and virtual communities, the Web can be your doppelganger, your double," says Joe Pilotta, professor of communications at Ohio State University and president of BIGresearch. It would know what you are doing, where you need to go, who else will be there, and push information to you that you can use even before you know you need it. "It's a super-vigilant valet who knows you better than yourself," says Pilotta.
Merging real and virtual media and selves will occupy the most visible layer of Web 3.0, but beneath that will be an engine that is big and smart enough to make sense of this cluttered parallel world. "Web 3.0 is about how to filter the content that is of interest to you," says Mathew Nichols of Highland Capital Partners. His firm invests in HeyLetsGo.com, where local social networks filter and match themselves with nearby live events. With a large enough social network, users will find relevant and new content not by going to the media hubs, but by moving across wider circles of their linked friends of friends to see what they like and recommend.
E-commerce, too, could become decentralized so people can buy the content on the blogs and profile pages where they find them. "Distributed commerce is the next big development," argues Marc Morgenstern, vice president of rights-holder relations and music at Navio, which enables transactions from any site. "The move will be to commerce at the edges of the networks."
A smarter Web brings all of its relevant content and necessary infrastructure to you. "Search" was the keyword of 2.0, but "discovery" is on the lips of prognosticators and VCs now. By leveraging the recommendation engine of social networks onto everything and linking together all the personal histories we ourselves scatter across cyberspace, the Internet might grow to know you better than you know yourself. "We are calling it the 'implicit Web,' says Josh Koppelman, managing director at First Round Capital. New tools like StumbleUpon.com blend your preferences with a million others who tag and rate sites to push new content to you. Web 3.0 will be a community-driven editor and "new tools will allow us to discover content based on interests," Koppelman says.
The real "convergence" on the horizon is not of media but convergence of information, with e-tailers, travel vendors and media hubs leveraging users' profiles, Web-surfing histories and even calendars and e-mail. "Web 3.0 is really a Web of connected data," says Nick Pahade, president of Denuo. The databases will start talking to each other, and then magic happens. When Pahade, or you, or Sophie, want to book a vacation to a warm clime, the Big-Brained Web knows your budget, your friends and where they are going, and who will be at the destination, nearby meeting places, everyone's activity preferences, and will send all of you suggested itineraries. It's a massive database and filter, but its rewards are very personal.
It is within that new intimate relationship between Web and We, media and me, that marketers must operate as if they are slipping into someone else's conversation. Like the Vera Wang tiara image that Sophie can plop into her Flipbook, brands will have to be relevant to situations and settings. They will release rather than push assets into these ecosystems in order to enhance the virtual media experience. In a virtual world where media and brand assets mix freely with UGC to tag who we are, brands could sponsor this flow and buy music and film in bulk to redistribute to consumers. Morgenstern of Navio suggests that "content will become a form of currency." According to Joe Marchese, "The media company that wins figures out how to free the content and monetize it without forcing it into slots."
But do we want to become this intimate with the Web? The idea of interconnected databases of personal information (no matter how empowering) is likely to set off more privacy alarms than Google has search results. We may like to think that communal content-building affairs like Second Life are the leading edge of a major transformation in media habits. But even at 2 million members, Second Life remains a niche novelty.
In any given online community, only a small proportion actually contribute content, while most others are happy to lean back in traditional roles as passive consumers. How much effort are media consumers willing to put into building virtual identities and worlds? Consider how many decades the video phone has been waiting to catch on. If we resisted the technology that would have let us make that next leap of intimacy with telephones, our culture could put similar brakes on Web 3.0.And even if we do build Web worlds that more resemble our personalities and homes, wouldn't that just raise the bar all the higher for marketers trying to get into these more cherished realms? As Marchese says, when brands want to fit into lives they need more than consumers' acquiescence. "They have to say, 'We want it here.' "