Duelling Web 2.0 Scenarios: Boom/Bust

Has Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 meme become a high-tech bubble about to burst?

Origins of the Web 2.0 Boom

O’Reilly’s vision of a new Web platform originally fused two developments.

The first development: C, Smalltalk and object oriented programmers devised design patterns in the early 1990s to reuse software code and workaround solutions across projects.  A 1995 catalog catapulted its four authors to software engineering fame.  To capture the rapidly growing number of design patterns programmer Ward Cunningham created the first wiki: the Portland Patterns Repository.

The second development: a re-evaluation of dotcom era business models to encompass new technologies that enhanced the end-user experience including the site interface and information architecture.  Industry buzz around News Corporation’s acquisition of MySpace (18th July 2005), Yahoo!’s purchase of Flickr (21st March 2005) and del.ico.us (9th December 2005), and Google’s stock-for-stock deal for YouTube (9th October 2006) made O’Reilly’s vision the ‘default’ vision for Web pundits and investors.

The media’s buzz cycle soon went into warp speed as Facebook frenzy replaced MySpace mania.  In a move that exemplified the pivotal role of complementors O’Reilly & Associates morphed into the juggernaut O’Reilly Media.  Ajax and Ruby Rails soon replaced Java and C# as the languages for new programmers to learn.  For activists in community-based media, angel investors investing in scalable programming prototypes and international conglomerates seeking to control their industry white-spaces Web 2.0 provided an all-encompassing answer to venture capitalists on how they would change the world.

Two Scenarios: Web 2.0 Boom & Bust

For industry pundits Google’s decision in October 2008 not to acquire Digg may signal the Web 2.0 boom has become a bubble.  If true Google’s decision could be the mirror of News Corporation and Yahoo!’s acquisitions in 2005.  Slate‘s Chris Anderson points to several factors: no tech IPOs in the second quarter of 2008, the cyclical nature of the digital consumer market, the exit of Yahoo! as a potential buyer due to internal problems, market noise due to low barriers of entry for startups, and a smaller “window of opportunity in which startups can think of a new neat trick, generate buzz, and cash out.”  YouTube’s co-founder Jawed Karim adamently believes that Silicon Valley is in a bubble.

Twitter is the latest startup in the duelling scenarios of Web 2.0 boom versus bust. New York Times journalist Adam Lashinsky experiences a similar euphoria to Facebook and YouTube when he visits Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey.  Sceptics counter that Facebook and YouTube have not ‘monetised’ their business models into profitable revenues.  Portfolio‘s Sam Gustin raises the ‘monetisation’ problem with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone who believes that service reliability is a priority over the “distraction” of revenue pressures.  In support of Stone’s position Anderson observes that cloud computing and open source software are lowering the operational costs and slowing the burn rates of startups.

Yet monetisation remains a primary concern for Sand Hill Road entrepreneurs and other venture capitalists.  They differ in their decision-making criteria to Web 2.0 pundits and high-tech futurists: for angel investors and first round VC funding the entrepreneurs will demand a solid management team, the execution ability to control an industry whitespace, and viable sources of future revenue growth.  This is the realm of financial ratios and mark-to-market valuation rather than normative beliefs and ideals which probably influenced the acquiring firm’s decisions and valuation models in 2005-06.

Furthermore, if a Web 2.0 bust scenario is in play, the ‘contrarian’ sceptics will look to Charles Mackay, Charles P. Kindleberger, Joseph Stiglitz and other chroniclers of past bubbles, contagion and manias for guidance.  With different frames and time horizons the Web 2.0 pundits, high-tech futurists and venture capitalists will continue to talk past each other, creating still more Twitter microblogging, blog posts and media coverage.

Several preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the Web 2.0 boom/bust debate.  In a powerful case of futures thinking O’Reilly’s original Web 2.0 definition envisioned the conceptual frontier which enabled the social network or user-generated site of your choice to come into being.  The successful Web 2.0 startups in Silicon Valley have a distinctive strategy comparable to their dotcom era counterparts in Los Angeles and New York’s Silicon Alley.  Web 2.0 advocates who justify their stance with MySpace, YouTube and del.icio.us are still vulnerable to hindsight and survivorship biases. There’s a middle ground here to integrate the deep conceptual insights
of high-tech futurists with the quantitative precision of valuation
models.

It’s possible that the high-visibility Web 2.0 acquisitions in 2005-06 were due to a consolidation wave and strategic moves/counter-moves by their acquirers in a larger competitive game.  There are two precedents for this view.  Industry deregulation sparked a mergers and acquisitions boom in Europe’s telecommunications sector in the late 1990s comparable to the mid-1980s leveraged buyout wave in the United States.  Several factors including pension fund managers, day trading culture and the 1999 repeal of the US Glass-Steagall Act combined to accelerate the 1995-2000 dotcom bubble.  Thus, analysts who want to understand the boom/bust dynamics need to combine elements and factors from Web 2.0 pundits, high tech futurists and venture capitalists.

If the Web 2.0 boom has become a bubble then all is not lost.  Future entrepreneurs can take their cue from Newsweek journalist Daniel Gross and his book Pop! Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy (Collins, New York, 2007): the wreckage from near-future busts may become the foundation of future bubbles.  Web 3.0 debates are already in play and will soon be eclipsed by Ray Kurzweil‘s Transhumanist agenda for Web 23.0.

Are Financialistas Over Hedge Fund Chic?

You can blame George Soros for making hedge funds the dark horse of the irrationally exuberant 1990s.

As the public face of the Quantum Group of Funds, Soros gained notoriety for short selling the English pound in September 1992 and allegedly making $1 billion in profits.  Adam Curtis observes in his riveting documentary The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999) that Soros’ victory signalled the first time that market speculators had beaten a country’s central bank.  In the aftermath Soros cultivated a master trader persona based on his personal ‘theory of reflexivity’ or how ‘participant’s bias’ can shape our actions in and perceptions of market events.  Hedge fund chic arose in Wall Street as investment banks rushed to found hedge funds, which use leverage and pooled capital to manage assets, derivatives and securities for an investor group.

Financialistas however are showing signs of buyers’ remorse as subprime turbulence brings an end to Soros-inspired hedge fund chic.  The high-profile collapse of Bear Stearns‘ two hedge funds in mid 2007 was only a precursor, Hedge Fund Research notes, of 170 liquidated in early 2008.  The survivors have adopted Soros’ global macro strategy which relies on computational finance and dynamical models of currencies, interest rates and other macroeconomic factors to achieve returns.

Global macro is a risky strategy for several reasons: it requires forecasting models of complex interactions, computing power and fund mangers with impeccable judgment for asset allocation.  In fact global macro deals with a specific risk class known as systemic risk that results from business cycles and macroeconomic movements, thus it cannot be diversified away.  Add funds’ massive leverage of pooled securities, industry secrecy, little government regulation and hypercompetition between different funds and managers, and an accurate calculation of risk-return is difficult.  These challenges overshadow the potential of applied research solutions, such as Fritz Zwicky‘s morphological analysis, a problem-solving method which deals with ‘multi-dimensional, non-quantifiable problems’ – relevant to the macroeconomic factors and systemic risk in global macro strategies.

Hedge fund chic faces several other problems.  As an investment category hedge funds have matured and their combination of high leverage and high management fees are unsuitable for many non-institutional investors.  Subprime fallout is triggering change in US financial and regulatory institutions which will inevitably lead to more rules and regulatory oversight of edge funds and managers.  Internally, hedge funds also need to separate managerial processes (principal management, portfolio execution) from financial reporting (mark to market book) and governance (board, corporate and policies & procedures).

Which means despite Soros’ alchemical touch hedge fund chic may now be a fad.