The Internet isn't just about e-mail or the Web anymore. Increasingly, people online are taking the power of the Internet back into their own hands. They're posting opinions on online journals -– Web logs, or blogs. They're organizing political rallies on MoveOn.org. They're trading songs on shady file-sharing networks. They're volunteering articles for the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and they're collaborating with other programmers around the world.
It's the emergence of the Power of Us. Thanks to new technologies such as blog software, peer-to-peer networks, open-source software, and wikis (group-edited Web sites), people are getting together to take collective action on an unprecedented scale. And it's often with no overt corporate oversight.
At the same time, plenty of business opportunities are here. Outfits such as search engine Google (GOOG ) and social-networking site MySpace are building entirely new markets. Even a few savvy corporations like Procter & Gamble (PG ) and Eli Lilly (LLY ) are finding ways to ride this wave of peer power, such as creating quasi-stock markets to predict sales or handicap regulatory approvals. Still, peer power is a hard concept to grasp. That's why a nickel tour of the emerging landscape may help.
24/7 PARTY PEOPLE.
A good place to start is some of the familiar places we all know -- or thought we knew. eBay (EBAY ), for instance, wouldn't exist without the 61 million active members who list, sell, and buy millions of items a week. But less obvious is that the whole marketplace turns on the trust engendered by eBay's unique feedback system, by which buyers and sellers rate each other on how well they fulfilled their half of each transaction. Everyone's feedback rating is visible to everyone else. Here, check out mine.
Pioneer e-tailer Amazon.com (AMZN ) encourages all kind of customer participation in the site -- including the ability to sell items alongside Amazon's own. But beyond that, take a look at this page for an iPod music player. It's chock-full of customer-generated material, from uploaded photos to a long list of helpful features on the far left -- customer reviews and a place to write your own, lists of related products, a list of what else customers of iPods bought, and an easy way to e-mail a friend about the product.
Other sites are more like a 24/7 party. MySpace for instance, is the latest phenom in social networking, attracting 14 million unique visitors a month. Many are music fans, who can blog, e-mail friends, upload photos, and generally socialize.
WAITING FOR E.T.'S CALL.
Some sites are much more specialized, such as the photo-sharing site Flickr. There, people not only share photos but also take the time to append their shots and others with "tags" that help everyone else find photos of, say, Florence, Italy.
You can even join in the search for alien life, craters on Mars, or indulge in other scientific endeavors from the comfort of your own den. SETI@home, a project that has radio telescopes searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, for instance, provides a downloadable screensaver. It runs when your PC is idle, crunching data from signals captured by the telescopes. More than 5 million people are taking part, though they haven't found anyone out there -- yet.
A few sites encourage people to get together in the real world, not just online. Meetup, for instance, has many thousands of groups that get together regularly, from English bulldog owners in New York City to scrapbookers in Singapore. For left-leaning activists, there's MoveOn, where people can arrange campaigns and rallies on causes such as saving Social Security.
The same sort of community ethos powers the fast-growing grass-roots media. For a good overview of blogs, including links to some of the best, read BusinessWeek's recent cover story. And you can read more about wikis here, including the awesome Wikipedia and services to help you create your own.
Just emerging now is a raft of citizen-media sites, which encourage people to offer up their own stories. They range from the nerdy, such as Slashdot, to the down-home, like Backfence.com. Some, such as Ourmedia, still in test mode, even let you upload video files.
Some of the most compelling examples of peer production, though, are the least obvious. Take search engine Google. At first glance, it's hard to find any sign of people here. So what's the peer-power angle? What Google's mathematical formulas do is instantly surf the collective judgments of millions of people whose Web sites link to another. When you into type "Johnny Cash" into Google's search box and land at the official site of the late country singer, the reason that was the first Web site listed is basically because more people are telling you it's the most relevant Johnny Cash site -- which it probably is.
WISDOM OF CROWDS.
Likewise, Skype on the surface looks like software that lets you make free phone calls over the Internet -- which it does. But the way it works is that by using Skype, you're automatically contributing some of your PC's computing power and Internet connection to route other people's calls. It's an extension of the peer-to-peer network software such as KaZaA and BitTorrent that allow you to trade songs -- at your legal peril, if those songs are under copyright.
Now, let's get down to business. Despite the anti-corporate nature of peer power, companies are starting to dive in. Eli Lilly's InnoCentive, for instance, set up a network of 83,000 scientists around the world to help the likes of Procter & Gamble and Boeing (BA ) tackle research problems they couldn't solve internally. Actually, you needn't be a scientist, so sign up and give it a shot.
Other corporations are trying to tap the wisdom of crowds with so-called prediction markets. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and others have set up experimental markets in which they corral people to buy and sell virtual stock in, say, one of a range of profit forecasts -- and their picks often prove more accurate than official forecasts.
JUST BET IT.
You can't see the corporate experiments in actions, not surprisingly, but you can get a taste of them at the Iowa Electronic Markets, a real-money futures market in political election outcomes. And at IntradeIntrade, people are buying and selling contracts related to the Michael Jackson trial outcome.
If any of that has whetted your appetite, you may want to dive deeper into how the leading thinkers are viewing this emerging peer power. Chief among them is Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. His blog is a rich resource for the latest news and research. He's also part of the Cooperation Project, a group of researchers and businesspeople trying to map out the new landscape. It's also worth checking out Yale Law School professor Yochai Benkler's remarkably accessible paper "Sharing Nicely", which makes the case that open-source software, SETI@home, and other cooperative online efforts represent an entirely new mode of economic production.
For all that, I've just skimmed the surface of what some folks are calling Web 2.0. So in the spirit of cooperation, please e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) about others you've heard about or are participating in. And look for updates and further posts on the Power of Us in BusinessWeek Online's Tech Beat blog.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell