So what is Web 2.0?

Michael Murphy, CEO of Friends Reunited, reveals his thoughts on 'social computing'. Michael joined the world famous internet brand after achieving a management buy-in from the founders in February 2003. He is also a non-executive director of Datamonitor.

Michael Murphy, CEO of Friends Reunited, reveals his thoughts on ‘social computing’. Michael joined the world famous internet brand after achieving a management buy-in from the founders in February 2003. He is also a non-executive director of Datamonitor.

Allow me to make a confession. I’ve been carrying a guilty secret around for quite some time, but only now do I feel able to share the burden…I don’t understand what Web 2.0 means. Not really, properly, in a talk-with-confidence kind of way. Or rather, I didn’t until a few days ago.

I know, it’s totally shocking isn’t it? Here’s me, a so-called captain of industry, head of one of Britain’s most successful dotcoms and all that, and yet when it comes to the latest bit of industry jargon, the talk of cyberspace, I’m in the dark.

And seeing as I’m being completely honest, I’ll also admit that I’m only, as my kids would say, ‘fessing-up’ now because I feel pretty safe in assuming that most of you will identify with my plight.

Come on, be honest, we’ve all been there. By now you will, like me, have met dozens of people who go on and on about this Web 2.0 lark like it’s the best thing since the Ryder Cup. No matter where you turn, sooner or later someone will start singing the praises of it and telling the rest of us that it is essential to seize the opportunity it represents.

The only trouble is, none of them can actually tell you what on earth it really is. That’s why I finally decided to sit down the other day and find out about this Big Idea. It didn’t exactly take a long time to get to the bottom of it and find a great little article by Tim O’Reilly.

Seeing as he’s the guy that helped coin the very term ‘Web 2.0‘, he’s a pretty good source. He lucidly explains some of those things that go to make up this second evolutionary phase of the digital revolution.

In a nutshell, he says Web 2.0 sites are essentially those that are moving away from ‘publishing’ and towards ‘participation’. These sites emphasise services, not software, and employ hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them. They harness the collective intelligence, so that users become co-developers. As users add data, the sites aggregate it by default, and build value as a by-product of ordinary use of the application.

User-generated content

In other words, one of the key hallmarks of Web 2.0 is that it’s the users that add the value. I found O’Reilly’s thoughts very intriguing and helpful. I’ve sent them to all my staff, who no doubt will feel the same illumination if they haven’t read them already. It turns out that there is something there after all: the phrase isn’t just so much snake oil. But that’s despite, not because of, the thousands of column inches which have been printed on the subject.

Highly theorised business models and academic studies of dynamic performance are, of course, incredibly valuable. Yet just as an idea starts to form into a useful commercial concept and gather momentum, it tends to get grabbed as a marketing device rather than a business tool.

The more the idea is put on a pedestal and held up as a panacea, the more it is used as a badge of cleverness for executives apparently more interested in name-dropping it at the right networking sessions than actually understanding it.

Given that this just devalues what could be a handy thing, to the point of being meaningless other than as a byword for style-without-substance, the question is why do good graduates of Harvard and Cranfield do so? Why do so many people talk about Web 2.0 when so few people can tell you what it is?

It makes individuals, companies and products appear cool, but the trouble with cool is that more often than not you end up being a one-hit wonder.

When your business premise is all NOW, it’s too easy to become yesterday’s man or woman. That’s one way of explaining the dotcom boom and bust.

When I began to explore the possibility of a management buy-in of Friends Reunited, so many people â“ respected business colleagues â“ advised against it, for the very reason that it would probably turn out to be a one-hit wonder for that very reason.

I knew they were wrong, because one of the things that really interested me in the company was its roots: housewife Julie Pankhurst sitting at her computer as a diversion from the travails of pregnancy. She wasn’t thinking in terms of user generated content or harnessing collective intelligence. She was just having a good idea. An idea, it turned out, which was so part of the zeitgeist that it would later take the likes of O’Reilly to adequately explain its full ramifications.

I think you can learn a lot from that about how to turn what could easily be a one-hit wonder into a successful business opportunity.

At Friends Reunited we work hard to stay loyal to the company’s roots. We don’t sit around singing ‘we’re too sexy for our website’, expecting to meet ourselves walking through the door because we’re that far ahead. It doesn’t trouble me that I don’t start mentioning concepts like Web 2.0 as soon as I hear of them. I’ve learned that while you’re looking for the Next Big Thing or obsessing over the ‘right’ business-speak, you can easily miss potentially lucrative deals.

One-hit wonders usually start in the territory of niche markets. I think that if you focus on giving your customers what they want by delivering a simple website, you’ll learn more about them and be able to target similar but different niches and so grow the brand.

You’re more likely to turn a one-hit wonder into a two-hit wonder that way, and eventually into a very profitable concern. To do so you must be constantly looking for new ways of connecting people through the internet, and so, yes, it is essential to be open to new ideas â“ genuine ones.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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