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February 8-14, 2006

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Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

Son of Dotcom

By Annalee Newitz

IT IS happening again. Cafes in the Silicon Bay bristle with laptop-aided business meetings. I'm sitting in one of them, a place called Ritual in a part of San Francisco whose efforts to resist dotcomification failed only partly. This Mission neighborhood is an urban chimera, glossy furniture nooks and specialty bookstores spliced between old-school thrift shops and Latin record stores.

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 his amusing new business cards to a cluster of people wearing T-shirts I've seen advertised on BoingBoing.

In the corner, a cutie I don't recognize has a giant Creative Commons sticker on his iBook. and I wonder vaguely if I know him but just haven't met him in person.

That's when 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, who is writing 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 as vague as this region's dotcoms 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 are the remnants of a dotcom I made fun of in this very column back in 1999: a company called Zupit. I search for, 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. 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 in 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 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 dotcom days.

Today's dotcom 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.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who was recently at a party where Nick Denton got drunk and wanted to take pictures of all the trannies in the room.

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