Are we seeing the end of ultimate geek power?

Arguably, there may well have never been such a thing as ultimate geek power; fine.

But I remember a slew of fluff pieces back in the first bubble that were all about the geeks’ role in the economy. More specifically, about how software programmers had suddenly taken over the kingdom and how they were, for the first time, in charge! How they were finally enjoying some of the fame once reserved for business types (if that means crisscrossing the world at the back of a plane, I don’t know that we benefited all that much in the bargain).

Ugh, right. You didn’t buy it either, did you? Still, from our twisted vantage point in the middle of the valley, it is clear that the rise to prevalence, in the last decade or so, of all things web, has allowed many a software engineer to contribute solid technology, innovation, and ultimately build very successful companies.

Is this still going on today? Are software whizzes putting their skill to the same use? Or are we, instead, seeing a shift away from that trend?

I think geek supremacy is at risk! Or rather, I think we need to wake up and focus, or face complete irrelevance. Why? Commoditization (a good thing) and complacency (a bad thing) are combining to create massive distraction.

Here’s what I mean: in the current advertising-driven web economy, a hit mentality has developed and spread everywhere. Eerily similar to 1999’s startups, today’s ventures ride on eye-balls. So far, so good, but what’s troubling for geeks is that technology doesn’t seem to be playing a significant role in what makes or break many of the services in that new crop. In other words, there’s no technical barrier to entry in a lot of the companies monopolizing the airwaves these days.

Hence the distraction: drawn by the current frothiness in the startup scene, we have lots of entrepreneurial engineers coming out of the woodworks, trying to join in with this or that project. But they’re not competing on technology. I am not saying they ever purely were (the mysterious art of marketing, for instance, has always played a decisive role). But things are exacerbated today, as engineers find themselves competing on something where they don’t have any unfair advantage: taste.

Take Facebook’s applications, for example. All the rage these days! It’s a great eco-system with lots of potential for rapid, viral growth, and instant monetization via ads. This sounds like the perfect, low-hanging fruit for your next startup. And it is, in some ways. But is there really anything predisposing a geek to succeed better than anyone else in that arena? Is a geek particularly equipped to anticipate how this or that app will appeal to and stick with various Facebook constituencies? I think not.

Here’s an even better example: Kawasaki’s Truemors. I attended one of his very engaging talks last night, where he covered the launch his latest startup. Whether or not you think truemors stands a chance is not relevant here: the site works, it’s functional. It was built in a couple of months, and for $4.5k initially (Guy threw in another $10k later; he jokes that should he need a second round of funding for the company, he could cover his operating costs for a year from the fees of a single talk). So he built and runs the site pretty much for free. It obviously stands on the shoulders or many giants, the top of the stack being WordPress and a bunch of plug-ins, but that’s precisely the point: in that venture, technology is a commodity. So if you’re not competing on technical execution, you’re competing on marketing and idea. How many software engineers are better equipped than Guy when it comes to generating buzz and ideas?

As he keeps saying: the point of entrepreneurships is not to level the playing field. It is to tilt the playing field toward you as much as you possibly can. I couldn’t agree more.

There’s lots of technology to be built and invented, and I think software engineers certainly have an unfair advantage with that. So it’s about resisting the tempting calls of the low-hanging fruits, and investing instead the cycles required to grasp the harder-to-reach ones. As Twitter’s Ev says, you have to decide what game you’re playing: picking is also about knowing your strengths.

By the way, technology innovation is what we strive for at BlogRovR. It sure feels like we thrive on technical barriers, especially those we can’t quite figure out how to climb at first! If you want to help, come join us.

Is the social web getting loud, or what?

Damn. I did it again: it’s not even noon yet and, just like the car talk brothers always say, I just wasted another perfectly good hour. Except, this time, I spent it tweaking my buddy list on Twitter and answering a deluge of invitations from folks on various social networks.

As an entrepreneur deep in the trenches of the evolving web (take that, web x.0 versioning zealots!) I should love that stuff: I started our company in that space precisely because I want to make the web a more social, participatory place. And at first glance, it seems we’re finally getting there, with the Internets chattier than ever. There are more and more fantastic options available to publish all sorts of content, from concise status updates to events to full-length blog posts to podcasts to video. And tools to share the goods with friends are mushrooming as well. What’s not to love, right?

Well, something about the pattern emerging right now bugs me. As a whole, I fear the social web ecosystem is currently amplifying the pain rather than actually helping users communicate and interact better. I read an interview with Aaron Swartz a few weeks back, where he mentioned that early Reddit users wrote about spending too much time on the addictive site. Like Aaron, I am not sure this is a good thing. I am hooked on Twitter, for instance, but I hate loving it.

Why? Because as someone not merely out there to kill time, but rather looking for valuable information nuggets, I don’t feel empowered; quite to the contrary, I feel played: since when does it count as progress that I have to manually sift through everybody’s mundane whereabouts just so I don’t miss the rare piece of signal in the noise? Sure, I want to know where the party’s at, but there has to be a better way to find out than following 1,234 users just to catch the few valuable announcements between countless quips about cappuccino runs and BART delay.

Twitter (or Jaiku, for that matter) isn’t a worse offender than others, mind you: I am frantically trying to keep up with numerous meeting trackers and calendars, from Outlook to Google to Yahoo to 30boxes to upcoming, not to mention old school evite. And should I update my profile and connections on Facebook today and on LinkedIn tomorrow, or the other way around? If I also have to watch the life-casting of my 50 closest friends, I might just as well give up on work right now.

My point: massive production overload, lack of any potent filtering. It may be fine for a while, or for die-hard exhibitionists and voyeurs, but I feel like we’re letting users down severely when it comes to having the stuff that matters to them bubble up to the top of their attention.

To answer Mike’s diatribe about the Valley getting rotten because of too much cash, too many parties, I’d say that in terms of innovation, we’re barely getting started: in my view, the point’s not only giving users yet another megaphone, but facilitating interaction, collaboration, online or even (let’s dream a little) in first life. While the promise of a web more participatory is what fires me up, I think we need to seriously ramp up the consumption side of things. And search in its current state is not the answer; it simply isn’t keeping up right now. Yes, I keep tabs on who’s writing about my company with blog search, but what is the Technorati tag for personalized “cool stuff, cool events, or cool people”? What’s really hot, in my view, is a chance to build and deliver that kind of filtering value for users, beyond gimmicks and raw entertainment plays just adding to the noise. What do you think?