Rohan Jayasekera's thoughts on the evolving use of computers -- and the resulting effects

Occasional thoughts by Rohan Jayasekera of Toronto, Canada.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Web 2.0 and deflation, unemployment, etc.

In the preceding post I argued that the key characteristic defining Web 2.0 is the 2-way use of the Web, where the “consumers” of the Web become producers themselves.

This has massive implications for the economy.

If the supply of something goes up dramatically while the demand for it doesn’t, its price decreases. Let’s look at some examples.


A lot of people have stopped reading newspapers. You can get the news on the Web for free from sources like Reuters (full disclosure: I once worked there tongue sticking out ) and any number of sites that redistribute that material. Some newspapers are fighting back by emphasizing their columns, which aren’t available elsewhere and are a major source of reader loyalty.

Well, the supply of newspaper columns has gone up dramatically, with the new entrants called blogs. And some of the bloggers write at newspaper quality. They just haven’t been writing in newspapers because newspapers are few in number and have limited space. As blogs emerge that satisfy the same needs filled by newspaper columns, the situation for newspapers will get worse.

For the media in general, the appearance on the Internet of large amounts of amateur material of good quality will reduce the amount of time that consumers have for professionally produced material.


There are now sites like where you can post a programming job you need done and programmers around the world can bid on it. Now your pool of available programming talent has expanded dramatically — including programmers in places like Eastern Europe who will work at much lower rates than those in North America and Western Europe. Supply up much more than demand -> price drop. Availability of cheaper suppliers -> price drop.

I should also mention the “open source” movement. More and more software applications are being created by the collaboration over the Internet of interested programmers, Linux being the best-known example. A lot of that work is done for free, or funded by taxpayers (the Internet itself was developed by people working for governments or universities). When people start switching in large numbers from Microsoft Office to free or cheap alternatives, I’ll be really glad that I don’t work for Microsoft.

Secondhand goods

My wife has been selling secondhand goods on Ebay (which in my view has been a Web 2.0 site since its birth) for a while. The profit margins used to be quite good for certain things. Not any more. As more and more people have heard that anyone can sell on Ebay, and have started doing so, new sellers have appeared who are willing to sell at tiny margins. No doubt some of this is from newcomers who haven’t yet realized that it’s not really a good idea to set the starting bid at only 99 cents (many of them think that a low starting bid will encourage bidders and that the result will be a bidding war, but the usual result is actually that the item sells for 99 cents, or doesn't attract any bids even at that price). But my impression is that this is only part of the story, and that the flood of new entrants has reduced margins for everyone. Sure, more people are buying on Ebay too, but I’d bet that in percentage terms the increase has been much higher on the selling side.

Ebay’s been lowering the prices of many things for years, by making it much easier for buyers to shop around and to access unfamiliar vendors. And Amazon, and all those other sites. But what I’m focusing on in this post is the advent of new vendors, including those who aren’t so easily thought of as vendors because they provide things at no charge. (Ten years ago I thought that the lack of decent infrastructure for “micropayments” — tiny payments for things of low perceived value — was holding back a lot of potential near-amateur vendors. But those vendors have found other ways, such as donations and, thanks largely to Google's pioneering AdSense program, advertising.)

When prices go lower, this is called “deflation”. It hasn’t occurred in a significant way in North America since the 1930s, though it’s been a problem in Japan since the 1990s. While those who have experienced high inflation may think that deflation sounds like a good thing, the fact is that inflation is actually good for those who owe money (if your income is rising because of inflation, you can pay back your debts more easily) and deflation is bad.

During deflation, those on salary may not experience wage cuts. They may instead lose their jobs entirely. For example, during the 1930s the national unemployment rate rose to approximately 30% in Canada, the USA and Australia. When you combine the people having zero income loss with those having 100% income loss, the average “price” has dropped by some percentage in between.

So that’s Web 2.0 and deflation and unemployment. The “etc.” in this post’s title refers to all the other bad consequences. For instance, I mentioned above that deflation is bad for people who owe money. A lot of people won’t be able to meet their mortgage payments and will lose their homes. Web 2.0 isn’t the only reason for that — many countries are in a credit bubble that will burst — but it’s one of the contributing factors.

UPDATE: For some historical perspective on this see The Growing Specter of Deflation by Nicholas G. Carr.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why "Web 2.0" is a great name for Web 2.0

There’s been much discussion about what Web 2.0 is (e.g. Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0), and whether it should be called that (e.g. Mark Kuznicki’s What is Web 2.0, anyway?).

I have a much simpler take on the subject. Web 1.0 is the 1-way use of the Web, and Web 2.0 is the 2-way use of the Web.

The Web holds “content”. Content is put there by someone, a producer, and used by someone, a consumer. Web 1.0 applications have a few producers (usually called publishers) and lots of consumers (usually called users), just like in traditional media such as newspapers and television. And they are separate groups of people. In Web 2.0 applications, people can be both producers and consumers (the term “prosumer” is sometimes used for this). Ebay may have been around for quite a while, but it’s a Web 2.0 application: most content comes from the users. Amazon is more typical of a Web 1.0 application, with a one-way flow from Amazon and its partners to the users. Amazon did, however, have a Web 2.0 characteristic early on, by including user-contributed reviews, and later also added the ability for users to sell their own items alongside those for sale by Amazon itself. So one might say that Amazon’s been upgrading from 1.0 to 2.0.

Notice how I referred to “Web 1.0 applications” and “Web 2.0 applications”. The Web hasn't changed; what has happened is the advent of various new applications that use the Web differently from most earlier applications. The Web now contains both 1.0 and 2.0 applications.

I’m not the first to say that Web 1.0 is the 1-way Web and Web 2.0 is the 2-way Web, and I’m puzzled that this view isn’t more common. It might be partly because the term “2-way Web” has for at least five years been used to refer to something else, namely the use of HTTP to push information to other places on the Web, not just to pull information into a browser window.

So what about those other commonly mentioned characteristics of Web 2.0? Tim O’Reilly lists fourteen examples of 1.0 vs. 2.0 uses of the Web, such as Akamai vs. BitTorrent and page views vs. cost per click. Most of them clearly fit the 1-way vs. 2-way model (including the two examples I just mentioned). He then goes on to identify seven principles: The Web as Platform, Harnessing Collective Intelligence, Data is the Next Intel Inside, End of the Software Release Cycle, Lightweight Programming Models, Software Above the Level of a Single Device, and Rich User Experiences. Well, that’s all great stuff, but a useful definition of anything can’t be five pages long. If anyone really wants me to, I can go into each of those seven principles and argue how it either fits the 1-way vs. 2-way model or should be dropped as a Web 2.0 principle.

I do however want to mention Ajax (a technique for letting users cause the page in front of them to be modified without a whole page refresh). Yes, sites that use Ajax tend to be called Web 2.0 sites. But think about it: in the 1-way Web, does a user need to modify the page? Not too often (generally only for things like zoom in/out). In the 2-way Web the user may be a producer and is far more likely to benefit from dynamic page changes in response to input coming from the user side. This role of the user as an active participant, and not merely as a reader in Web 1.0, also makes things like a larger font more important. My complaints during the dot-com era about tiny fonts that made pages look cool but couldn’t be read by anyone over 40 have largely gone away, thanks not to any increase in good sense on the part of web designers but thanks largely to Web 2.0 applications that require user interaction with the pages. For that reason alone I personally am grateful to Web 2.0. So what if it'll also cause deflation, unemployment, ... but that's a topic for another post.

Why this blog

I’ve never had any inclination to create a personal blog, because I doubt that my day-to-day life would be particularly interesting to other people. I do post sporadically on a group blog, fuck decaf, that was created by my friend Carolyn Burke (who as far as I know was Canada's first blogger, starting Carolyn's Diary in January 1995). But I do find other topics to warrant a blog — and I do believe that blogs should be topic-specific (or at least categorized by topic). I recently created a blog to broadcast updates about the severe illness of a close friend (together with a wiki to help coordinate a 24-hour watch once she was in her final days). And now there’s something I want to contribute to the ongoing discussions of “Web 2.0”, something more than is reasonable as a mere comment in one of the many existing blogs that cover the topic. So the next post will be the only one that I’m actually creating this blog for — but once the ball is rolling I may well come up with more. (Posting when, and only when, you have something to say is one of blogs’ wonderful characteristics. To me a blog is pretty much the same thing as a newspaper/magazine column, but with a lot more freedom for the columnist.)