The Next Web: The Dawn Of The Geek Meritocracy

May 2, 2012 | 14:12
Last week the 7th edition of The Next Web Conference -the tech event that is all about the future of the web- was hosted in Amsterdam. From the buzz of 1600 visitors, 60 startups and an impressive list of speakers one theme bubbled up repeatedly: the geek meritocracy.

Level playing field
Several speakers referred to the emergence of a meritocracy in a world where the web is increasingly establishing a level playing field both on- and offline.

Phil Libin, co-founder and CEO of Evernote -a productivity tool with 20 million users world wide- spoke about the favorable environment for entrepreneurs today. Only five years ago startups were greatly disadvantaged when competing with big corporations. It wasn’t enough to make the best product because established companies could kill the competition with marketing budgets, distribution channels and infrastructure.

Today, according to Libin, that isn’t true anymore. Making the best product is enough because some things have fundamentally changed.

Getting a product to the customer used to be difficult and time consuming because it required making deals with retailers to establish distribution channels. Today with app- and web stores anyone can get a product out to a customer anywhere in the world.

Ten years ago a company called Driveway offered an online storage service similar to Dropbox. The company failed because the costs of the infrastructure such as storage space and databases were prohibitively high. Now most of the infrastructure is free, open source and of good quality.

Social media is also a game changer. Marketing budgets aren’t a deadly weapon anymore. Everybody has the tools to make their product known to the world. Libin: ‘If no one knows about your product the only possible reason is that it sucks. If it’s great the entire world will know about it in a month because everybody is having a thousand conversations a day about the things they love.’

‘These fundamental changes add up to a geek meritocracy’, Libin concludes. ‘If you’re a geek and you’re passionate about making something but that’s all you’re good in, it’s enough. If you’re not good at all the other stuff -marketing, negotiations, logistics- five years ago you would have been dead. But today it’s enough because for the first time in history we live in a geek meritocracy’

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian sees the level playing field emerging in the media landscape. He recalls the SOPA/PIPA debate in which the social news site Reddit played a significant role.

SOPA and PIPA are two proposed anti-piracy bills that received a lot of support in the US Congress from both Republicans and Democrats. The bills were heavily backed by lobbyists from the content industry, most notably The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The tech community opposed the bill which they dubbed the wrecker of the internet.

And then those following the debate witnessed something strange. While SOPA and PIPA were trending topics all over the web, the traditional media did not report on it at all. Like it was 1995 all over again when the web and hardcopy were two separate worlds.

In response users of Reddit decided they would black out the site on the 18th of January 2012. Wikipedia and 75,000 web sites joined the world’s first internet strike. They called upon their visitors to contact their representatives, which 8 million people did. Now that news made all the TV channels and newspapers. Politicians tumbled all over each other to be the first to withdraw their support and the bills were shelved indefinitely.

Ohanian’s point is clear. Whether the mass media wanted to silence the debate or simply wasn’t interested, they ignored the voices of millions. Ten years ago that would have meant those voices would not be heard. But the internet has enabled people to speak directly to each other. And when they unite they can’t be ignored.

‘This is an example of what can happen on the Internet because it’s an incredibly level playing field’ said Ohanian.‘An open Internet has quickly become the most efficient marketplace for ideas the world has ever seen, and a catalyst for startups, non-profits and, yes, revolutions.’

In a true meritocracy problems aren’t solved by those who happen to be in charge but by those with the best skills and ideas to tackle them. Ohanian tells the story of problem solvers in Egypt: ‘In Cairo, I met a startup called Bey2ollak that aims to solve the atrocious traffic problem that plagues the city, by crowd-sourcing realtime traffic data. It shows how entrepreneurs can come up with real innovative solutions to problems, without government interference. Already, they’re seeing thousands of downloads, and they’re expanding to more cities and countries.’

But the web is also exporting the level playing field offline.

Amongst the startups showcasing their products was Incrediblue. The Greek startup will soon launch a platform that aims to disrupt the current status quo in the boating rental business. Incrediblue enables boat owners, crew members and vacationers to connect with each other directly. Co-founder Antonios Fiorakis explains that presently the boating business revolves around middle man who take a percentage of both the boat owners and the vacationers. Owners can’t set their own prices and renters never really know what their getting.

At Incrediblue boat owners can create profiles to market themselves. Customer reviews should help renters know what their getting and crew members can offer their skills directly to those who need them. By means of the online platform anyone can join the market and at their own terms. ‘This concept could work for any vertical market’, said Fiorakis.

The startup Shiroube offers a similar service. It connects travelers with locals who want to act as guides. Co-founder Tatsuo Sato hopes to give travelers a more personal experience and enable locals to make a little money in a market that would otherwise be closed to them.

For those two days on the Next Web Conference it was easy to believe Geek Meritocracy was the new world order. But some speakers urged for caution.

Susan Crawford, professor at Cardozo Law School in New York City, talked about that part of the internet that isn’t democratized at all: the hardware infrastructure.

A few cable and telecom companies own all the cables and wires over which the bits and bytes zip across the planet. This market is a natural monopoly because there are lots of high upfront costs. At the same time there is hardly any government oversight. Because there is neither competition nor regulation the sector has little incentive to invest in a high speed infrastructure.

Cable operators have the power to squeeze the pipe through which the data flows or raise the price for access. Therefore it is important that governments regulate the market to protect citizens’ access to the internet.

‘You can’t geek around this’ Crawford warned . ‘You have to get involved in government policy’.

Alexis Ohanian ended his speech with a similar message. ‘Not long after the SOPA and PIPA bills were shelved (not terminated), attention went to ACTA . We haven’t won that fight yet, but the majority of government officials in Europe have turned to opposing ACTA. It’s up to us to keep telling our stories and stand up for the things we all believe in.

‘We can do exceptional things for other people thanks to the Internet, so we need to strive to make it a better one. But it’s an ongoing fight – there’s still more work to be done.’


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