Son of Dot-Com

It's happening again. Cafes in the Silicon Bay are bristling with laptop-aided business meetings. I'm sitting in one of them, a place called Ritual, in the Mission District.

Like everybody else in the place, I've come here to work while sipping the free WiFi and excellent double cappuccinos. Two tables away, glitterati from blog search shop Technorati are arguing over user interfaces. A guy who helped organize Webzine 2005 is handing out business cards to a cluster of people wearing T-shirts I've seen advertised on BoingBoing. In the corner, another guy has a giant Creative Commons sticker on his iBook.

Then the people behind me start talking loudly about "Web 2.0 operating systems" and "leveraging social networks." I look up, alarmed, then send an IM about it to my friend Quinn, across the table from me. "Do you hear the marketing droids behind us?" I write. She giggles, staring at her monitor. "Acoustics bad," she writes back. "What are they saying?"

It turns out they're crafting a PowerPoint presentation for some company whose business model sounds like what we called vaporware in the dot-com era of yore: They plan to "bring the gaming community together" and somehow make money on that. I eavesdrop until I realize with horror that they're the remnants of a dot-com I made fun of in this very column back in 1999: a company called Zupit. I search for zupit.com, but the site is just a directory full of files I can't access -- there's nothing left of the bubble company that "brings it down to you," as it says on the ancient Zupit schwag pen I have. And yet the company still lives! Its stupid business model still lives! How can this be?

It's all the fault of the post-Google hegemony, which has imposed a new buzzword regime on us: We must now refer to internet culture using terms like Web 2.0, digital ecosystem, folksonomy, social network, Ajax and tagging. What do these words mean? That investors have turned their burning, collective gaze from the wastes of Mordor to the human world of Silicon Valley again, and they're giving us money to build things that sound new.

Some of these absurd terms are actually marginally useful and perhaps warrant a short guide to using them in sentences and paragraphs (and marketing "manifestos" -- "plans" are so 1998). Since the Web 1.0 years, when broadband was new and everybody was scrambling to get a "Web presence," people have gone beyond home pages to form social networks by blogging on LiveJournal or "friending" on MySpace. In fact, a whole digital ecosystem has grown up around the social networking industry: There are applications that allow people to share photographs online (Flickr), companies devoted to creating virtual communities (SecondLife) and tools for cell phones that let you discover the physical locations of people in your "network" even when you're offline (Dodgeball).

Of course, now that all this personalized, localized crap is online, it has to be organized and searchable. That's why, if you want your buddies to find their pictures among the thousands you've loaded into your blog, you need tagging. Tags are descriptive words attached to a person, place or thing online, and they're even more bizarre than the Dewey Decimal System. If you search tags on Flickr, for instance, you'll discover that among the predictable ones like "San Francisco," "vacation" and "wedding," there's a special tag for pictures of "boys eating burgers." There's another for "stupid Americans."

The end result of a tagging system is folksonomy. No, it's not a joke band from the 1960s. It's a taxonomy, or knowledge organization system, created by regular folks who don't have advanced degrees in information science and don't work in libraries. Only in a folksonomy would you ever get results from searching for the tag "sexy geeks." This development alone makes it clear we've learned something since the Pets.com days.

But there's a hell of a lot we haven't learned. For every groovy folksonomy, there's a Zupit. Companies like it abuse resources and turn technological promise into launch parties full of free booze, which are as numerous on any night in San Francisco now as they were during the dot-com days. Today's dot-com parties are full of drunken bloggers instead of website designers, but one thing has remained constant across the half decade: The Zupits suck up funding, while true visionaries innovate for free.

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