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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 11:19 GMT
Net thinkers look to web's future
By Matt Wells
In New York

Webby founder Tiffany Schlain
Webby's bubbly founder, Tiffany Shlain, hosted the event
A decade ago when the Webby Awards began, they would have been lucky to coax a backstreet bar in Brooklyn into giving them a free space.

But 10 years on, everything has changed.

A hundred of the folk who Webby organisers believe are going to shape the net's future over the next 10 years, were invited to enjoy top-flight hospitality in the penthouse suite of smart broadcaster HBO's New York headquarters on Tuesday night.

The event launched the 10th anniversary cavalcade, which will not be staged here until next June. So as not to peak too early, there was a philosophical theme on offer - what lies ahead for the web in the next decade?

The Webby's bubbly founder, Tiffany Shlain, told the BBC News website that, like it or not, a second boom was now under way.

In her mind, the internet bubble never really burst in the traditional sense.

"People were thinking of the web as the bubble part, instead of the air part, in the bubble," she said.

"Now that the bubble has burst, the air is everywhere, and everyone's breathing in, and everyone's contributing to it. It's very exciting how many people are online now."

Collective power

As a kind of analogy to the extraordinary growth in online presence, guests were treated to a screening of The Powers of 10, a visionary old movie that shows what happens when you keep panning out from a snapshot scene by a factor of 10, every 10 seconds.

The keynote speaker, journalist James Surowiecki, employed some of the thinking from his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, to describe the net as possessing an "impulse towards openness and freedom".

Broadband was funded by people who lost their shirts in the Nasdaq, and god bless them. Now we're in the baby-steps of a true people's medium
Douglas Rushkoff, author
He believes that its great potential is to tap further into the vast "collective intelligence" of mankind, in the way that Google and the photo-sharing service Flickr have enabled so many millions already.

"They generate often incredibly brilliant collective results, without actually requiring much extra work from people."

But will the next 10 years of the web be money-driven, or culture-driven? Both says Mr Surowiecki.

Networks have to stay open, and the thirst for random knowledge prevents both the "Balkanisation" of the internet by self-absorbed groups, and also its homogenisation.

Advertising agency executive Peter Figueredo pointed to a trend in his sector that should help keep the power of the net at the bottom of the pyramid.

Companies like are building a marketplace for podcasters, following the lead of ad networks that sell advertising on behalf of bloggers.

Adam Rich, who runs a sassy online guide for New York's young men about town, said he sensed a bit of natural selection creeping into the bloated blogging world.

"Pretty soon they're going to start dying out, because a lot of people don't run them like businesses," he said.

Standing to the side of the busy cocktail reception, internet author and theorist Doug Rushkoff was striking a different note about the value of internet use.

"The corporatisation of the net failed, just as the militarisation of the net failed," he said. "The social agenda tends to outweigh any other agenda people put on it."

He is still down on dotcom, but raises his glass to what happened after the bubble burst.

"Broadband was funded by people who lost their shirts in the Nasdaq, and god bless them. Now we're in the baby-steps of a true people's medium."

He looks forward excitedly to the prospect of more collaboration and real community blogging.

"The internet started on the culture pages, and it moved over to the financial pages. I think it's going to move back to the culture pages," he said.

Time to reinvigorate

There is no doubt that the distinctions between different media are dissolving fast as broadband gets fatter and extends its reach.

James Surowiecki
The keynote speaker was The New Yorker staff writer James Surowiecki
"I think the fracturing of the advertising market is going to be very big in American media," said Frank Bajak, technology editor for the Associated Press.

"The web is looking for more content. Will that content be in the form of video, and how will that video be delivered?"

People and advertisers need smarter ads that liberate them from the conventions of old-school television, he said.

The biggest laugh of the night came when Tiffany Shlain compared the first 10 years of the Webbys to a red-hot lover, who has suddenly lost a bit of steam.

Now that the bloom is off the rose, she said, it is time to reinvigorate. She fondly recalled the rough-edged founders of Google rollerblading on stage in solar capes, to pick up their Webby award, way back in 2000.

Paper billionaires do not tend to do that kind of thing, but in the unpredictable world of the web, do not bank on it.

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