Are Today's App Companies Amusing Us to Death or Building the Future?

Cutting through the hype of Internet Week to find out: Is there a real idea here?
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Reuters

The national conversation of late has revolved around a trio of Washington scandals, a weather disaster, and the seesaw views in financial markets about whether crisis looms. Yet for all their prominence, none are as tied to trends that will shape our collective future as the myriad of events that took place this week in New York City under the banner of "Internet Week."

Now in its sixth year, Internet Week is a loosely coordinated series of gatherings ranging from daylong symposiums to open houses of tech companies large and small to the Webby Awards, which is the online version of the Oscars. Topics cover the gamut from healthcare in the digital age to marketing your startup to crowd funding. The attendees are young and at times terminally hip. The whole thing is, quite frankly, fun.

The events are filled with strivers and startups. Some may be bought in a few short years, at massive multiples, as Tumblr just was by Yahoo; some may soar higher and become the next Yahoo or Facebook; many will fail. But the collective outcome points resoundingly toward creativity, innovation and continually morphing modes of commerce and connectivity. Half of it may be frivolous, but what matters more is that half of it is serious about changing the world.

The 133 companies that open their doors to visitors during the week - known as OpenCo - make the point. OpenCo describes itself "as a mix between a business conference and artist's open studio with the vibe of a music festival." The idea was hatched in part by John Battelle, who helped launch Wired and The Industry Standard in the 1990s and Federated Media in the 2000s. The companies that participated in New York's first OpenCo ranged from hot companies like eyeglass purveyor WarbyParker and high-end retailer Gilt to powerhouses such as TED and Ideo to nonprofits like tech-in-schools Mouse.org. Some names might be familiar, but most, given the bias towards startups, are not. They are the germoplasm of New York's social media and tech ecosystem of Silicon Alley, a rough geography stretching amorphously from Chelsea to Tribeca.

Many have only minimal revenue; listening to various chief executives of these admittedly green ventures, revenue does not even come high on the list of priorities. In fact, for ventures that are so unequivocally commercial, given how many of them connect users to products and companies to customers, revenue and profit take a backseat to vision and community. Some of this is a familiar tech-industry conceit: We're not here to make money, we're here to make the world a better place -- though if someone wants to value us at $1 billion, all the better.

Part of the reluctance to focus on revenue is pragmatic. These companies didn't exist a decade ago. Much of the current focus is on mobile applications, for smart-phones and tablets, which couldn't have been used the way these companies imagine until about five years ago. The tech world is strewn with companies that only later found ways to "monetize" their user base. Google, Yahoo and Facebook all began as quirky ideas, created by twenty-somethings with a vision for connecting people. Then they found a way to generate massive income.

So for now, given that no one knows the ultimate ratio between goofy ideas and transformational ones, the focus on user experience, on content, on gathering reams of data about users and their likes and dislikes -- all of that makes a certain sense. Every large company in the world is hungry for more information about the commercial habits of younger people, ranging from the mania for products and experiences linked to cult TV shows like The Walking Dead to foodies finding the next obscure ramen joint using GPS location services and a food app on their iPhone. Most of us gravitate towards services and apps that connect us to our needs and wants. There is clearly gold in these hills, but only with a lot of prospecting, many empty pans, substantial failure and some broken dreams.

And the scene is moving fast, even more than it was in the first go-round in the 1990s. Said one CEO on my tour of offices, "I'm trying to stay focused on the long game, what's going to happen six or nine months from now." I chuckled, and I was the only one finding it funny.

It's easy to dismiss these Internet ecosystems as froth, whether in New York or Silicon Valley. The new app that lets you look like a character in Game of Thrones and then tweet your image to your friends may have taken half a dozen techies a few months to perfect, but it's not clear what the ultimate value is. Many of these companies do not answer the question of whether we are improving daily life or, as Neil Postman said years ago, just "amusing ourselves to death."

Yet optimism and ambition are not just heady. They are essential for constructive change. One of the older companies on the slate this week is Mouse, a nonprofit founded 15 years ago to bring technology to public schools in troubled districts. Today, the organization is bringing 3D printing to inner-city classrooms, providing computer literacy and problem-solving.  Many of the social media companies exist now at the intersection of marketing, entertainment, commerce and community. Much of human history was consumed with staying alive; now, in the more affluent parts of the world, people are consumed with finding meaning, community and economic security. At best, these new ventures are intent on developing tools that allow individuals and organizations to tap the power of information to meet those needs.

If the above sounds boosterish, it is. The dismissive cynicism of the past decade is corrosive and self-fulfilling. It's alive and well, all around us, and a collective future fueled by that is grim. The swirl of Internet Week is exactly the right mix of ambition and dreams. The silliness of some of it doesn't matter nearly as much as the animating spirit, which is key to our future. The belief that tomorrow is an open book and can be better than today is a powerful force, and it courses through American history. For a week at least, it was, thankfully, flowing still.

"The Edgy Optimist" column is initially published at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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