Meet the new web

Written by Rick Spence

It’s fashionable now to laugh at the great Tech Boom of 1998-2000. All that hype about the Net, stock prices and VCs tripping over each other to give too much money to companies with too few customers.

But I miss that era. In those blue-sky days preceding the tech crash and then 9/11, dreams were the currency of choice, not fear. Whole industries were in flux and exciting innovators were questioning our most basic economic assumptions, from the notion of scarcity to the nature of competition.

Best of all, we saw idealistic young people embrace business like never before. When three Toronto teenagers sold their Internet company for US$1 million, hoary institutions ranging from big banks to the CBC rushed to welcome the new talent, innovation and ideas that computer-savvy youth represented in Canada’s resource-heavy economy.

Visiting Silicon Valley in the last days of the boom, I was moved by the openness of the culture. Tech entrepreneurs inhabited an expanding universe, where every innovation sparked more ideas, and today’s competitors were tomorrow’s strategic partners.

It couldn’t last, and didn’t. But the tech boom is slowly bubbling back. And it is bringing back its subversive ideals.

Credit Google, the tech-boom straggler that has proven no market is immune to competition. Google’s 2004 IPO put the fizz back in technology stocks, and its innovative services — from Google News to pay-per-click advertising — helped spark the new boom known as Web 2.0. It revolves around the belief that the Net is not just a one-way vehicle for broadcasting information or selling, but a complex network of personalized services that lets every individual reinvent the Net to his or her own taste.

Web 2.0 is Silicon Valley’s culture of sharing revamped as an online imperative. I recently saw this philosophy in action at DemoCamp, a grassroots event held one evening in a renovated Toronto carpet factory now inhabited by Tucows, a rare survivor of the dot-com crash. DemoCamp attracted more than 100 software developers, implausibly young and bright, to witness new ideas from other local developers.

The DemoCamp concept is borrowed from a California event that allows software producers and venture capitalists to preview applications from promising developers. But these meetings aren’t intended for selling or asking for money — they represent the joy of discovery, the thrill of seeing what’s coming next. DemoCamp organizer David Crow, a freelance software developer, characterizes the event as “mainly for alpha-geeks.” It’s only Crow’s third DemoCamp, but it’s growing like Topsy, thanks in part to Web 2.0 technology: instead of running a traditional website, DemoCamp has a wiki — a type of website that any visitor can add to or edit.

The five presenters I saw showcased a range of Internet-based services, including supplementary education for computer-science students; creating customizable websites and e-commerce services for independent jewellers; allowing subject-matter experts to create and sell educational courses incorporating a wide variety of digital media; helping people find services, from babysitting to tech support, in their own neighbourhoods; and offering bloggers a personal chat function that lets readers interact right on their sites.

So, it’s not quite a revolution. But there is a unifying theme: in the Web 2.0 spirit, it’s about personalization and connecting, not simply the provision of a prepackaged commodity to aggregated online markets.

More important is the meaning of DemoCamp itself. “It’s a fabulous opportunity for members of the community to come together and see what each other is doing,” says Albert Lai, founder of, whose no-registration photo-sharing service epitomizes the self-actualization ethos of Web 2.0. Mocking the sordid secrecy of Fight Club, the bare-knuckles brawl site in the Brad Pitt movie, DemoCamp has only two rules. Rule One: “You must talk about DemoCamp.” Anyone can attend, so long as they participate by delivering a presentation, talking or blogging about the event, or by bringing guests to the next one. (Rule Two? No PowerPoint.)

Lai is one of those three high-school buddies who sold for more than US$1 million. He now jets between his sparse Spadina Avenue offices and Palo Alto, Calif., looking for funding to position BubbleShare as a leader in the photo-storage market. Lai believes events such as DemoCamp are essential to the growth of Canada’s tech communities. “We’re all working hard on what we’re doing, with no idea what anyone else is up to,” he says. “When we know each other and what we’re each doing, it makes the whole community stronger.”

The spirit is catching. Crow and friends are holding other events as well, including TorCamp, an “open-source un-conference” that attracts like-minded people to discuss topics the group chooses at the event. Again, technology is the enabler: you can sign up for a range of such “Camps” from around the world at

Toronto tech lawyer Rob Hyndman, who is helping organize a Web 2.0 conference for May 15-16 (, believes events such as these are a sign that the tech community is back. “It’s a powerful way of bringing the community together and keeping it cohesive,” he says. “There’s a sincere sense of idealism and optimism in the community. I think the frost is over.”

Enjoy the spring. But don’t pay retail for any stock.

Originally appeared on