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Web 2.0 worked. It won a toehold in the world. People started rallying around. It might have been the triumph of concept over reality, but it created value immediately. The concept said, “Our industry is not a hopeless heterogeneity of practices and approaches. It is some thing. Google AdSense, Flickr, BitTorrent, Napster, Wikipedia, blogging, search engine optimization, Web services, wikis, tagging, and syndication—all of this is not an experiment in free fall, but an industry charging forward.” Web 2.0 bundled nicely, and as it bundled, it clarified and galvanized.
Within a couple of years, Web 2.0 was coin of the realm, the term you could use in a meeting to a chorus of nodding heads. Eighteen months into its launch, Web 2.0 had 9.5 million citations in Google. The Web 2.0 Conference, first held in 2004 in San Francisco, drew 700 people and an array of distinguished speakers.
Of course, there were real differences of opinion about what the term meant. But at least people were now conducting the discussion under one umbrella instead of all over the place. In fact, a world of faint signals, tremendous confusion, ceaseless experiments, and widespread skepticism was beginning to cohere. Now we could be more like hedgehogs (who, as Isaiah Berlin told us, think about one big thing) instead of foxes (who are obliged to think about many things). Our culture was a little more organized.
As a Culturematic, Web 2.0 delivered that most extraordinary thing: a category in our heads that would help us see the world. And from this could come a conference, a consensus, and a community. An industry pulled itself back from chaos and began again, now more confident and more purposeful. It helped coax nervous investors back into the market. It helped reignite the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley. Not bad for a word, two numbers, and a dot.
Larry Harvey and Jerry James took an eight-foot wooden man to San Francisco’s Baker Beach on June 21, 1986, and set him on fire. People came sprinting up the beach to have a look. As the winds drove the flames to one side, a woman rushed in to hold the Burning Man’s hand. A stranger with a guitar improvised a song. Sparks flew into the night air, and the Burning Man burned.
Harvey and James resolved to burn another man the following year. Volunteers assembled to help. Friends brought friends. These friends brought friends. More songs were written. And after a couple of years, Burning Man was an annual fixture of Baker Beach. Eventually the city said no to a fire on the beach, and Burning Man moved to the desert. This meant creating Black Rock City, an economy and culture that now exists for a week each year, in a wasteland about 90 miles from Reno. Some 48,000 people come to participate. Burning Man makes the desert bloom and then vanishes without a trace.
Some 25 years after it was founded, Burning Man has a credo: “Burning Man is about coming together in a beautiful yet unforgiving environment to celebrate radical self-expression.” But at the moment of the first event, he was just a guy on fire. No back story. No story at all. The Burning Man website explains: “During the early years of growth on Baker Beach…organizers or workers [never] asked what it meant…no self-conscious meaning or symbolism seemed necessary.”
Harvey and James didn’t need meaning or symbolism. They had started with a simple what-if, as in “What if we build a man out of wood, take him down to the beach, and set him on fire?” It was a little Culturematic, an event with a very clear start and no clear outcome. The two men didn’t know what the Burning Man was for. They just wanted to see.
Like every Culturematic, Burning Man is both a cause and an effect. It’s a cause, because it pushes parts of American culture to new intensity, especially the democratization of art and the notion of “random kindness, senseless beauty.” It’s an effect, because it is riding what Daniel Bell called America’s “expressive individualism,” our need to explore our own and the community’s creativity.
Culturematics can’t flourish unless they catch something in our culture. But when they do, they have an accelerating effect. This makes Burning Man a little like Chez Panisse, the Bay Area restaurant that Alice Waters created in 1971 and that helped express and intensify the local-food movement. Culturematics begin as innovations tiny and obscure. But when they speak to Americans, they end up speaking for Americans.
Culturematics and the World of Innovation
The British researcher John Kearon recently looked at the innovation record of Unilever, a massive Dutch-British consumer-goods corporation. The results were surprising. Unilever has a great track record, creating not just new brands and products but entire categories: laundry powder, fabric softener, margarine, and moisturizing soap. Kearon discovered that none of these discoveries came from the innovation centers Unilever set up in the 1990s to produce such results.
Everything about the innovation centers had looked right. They hired the best people. They spent real money. They centralized Unilever’s creative efforts. And as Kearon explains, by and large they failed.
The innovation center model is good at creatively farming existing brands, and has added significant value to the likes of Dove, Lynx, and Flora. But as a model of innovation it is too centralized, too evidence-based, too “marketing science”–orientated to have the freedom and contrariness to originate new categories that can create even greater value.