You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Hopelessly Optimistic in Italy

BY Joshua Levy | Friday, February 8 2008

I’m in Udine, Italy, at the foot the Italian Alps, where I’ve been invited to join a panel at the State of the Net conference. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect when I first arrived yesterday morning, except that, miraculously, everything had been taken care of by the highly capable organizers. At dinner last night -- attended by the likes Ross Mayfield, president of Socialtext, David Sifry, founder of Technorati and a member of the illustrious Sifry clan, as well as new friends from the Italian and English worlds of technology -- we talked over wine and good food about social technology and the Italian telecom industry, before the inevitable discussion about cultural differences and claimed superiorities.

I knew nothing about the state of the net in Italy, so this conference has been completely educational (at least when I can understand what is being said. This morning I attended a session conducted in Italian; I think it was about happiness or something). At this morning's sessions David Sifry, Paolo Valdemarin, Stefano Quintarelli, and Gigi Tagliapietra talked about entrepreneurship, the web, and structural barriers in Europe to the kind of electronic agora we are trying to build in the U.S and elsewhere.

From the introductions we learned that it's almost impossible to lay down copper wire through the Alps; that in Italy, the law requires you to sign on to wifi networks with your full name, and that once the government telecommunication monopoly in 1992, it was replaced by a private monopoly. And that was before Sifry delivered another Alert about the state of the blogosphere -- more than 150,000 new blogs per day, compared to a total of 40,000 blogs when Technorati launched in 2002. I couldn't image how it all could possibly fit together.

Gigi Tagliapietra (say that ten times fast!) spoke in broad terms about our responsibility to defend online networks from governmental incursions. The web doesn't do well with restrictions, whether public or private, but, as Sifry later argued, it has a unique way of routing around problems. Tagliapietra also noted something that we social media propagandists have written about a lot -- that the web is fundamentally about people and their social interactions.

But the Web 2.0 revolution, which purports to be about the social aspect of the web, hasn't yet reached Udine. Only 22% of Italians have broadband connections, compared to more than 55% of Americans. And even though Italy and most of Europe has more mobile users, and a more sophisticated mobile network, than the U.S., most users spend their time texting and using MMS; the mobile web isn't even on most peoples' radar.

(To illustrate this, Sifry reached into his pocket and produced his iPhone. "This little machine has more power than all of the computers used to power the Apollo program," he told us. Yet most users use their iPhones and other powerful little computers to send each other text messages.)

With less than a quarter of Italians on broadband, the idea that the consumer/producer model is collapsing -- which we in the U.S. have been discussing for some time -- is foreign to most Italians. Whether they realize it or not, Sifry implied, the massive adoption rates of Facebook, MySpace and other social sites has turned the people formerly known as the audience/consumers into producers. But in Italy and other parts of Europe, the so-called Web 2.0 revolution has yet to arrive.

In the U.S., the most optimistic among us see these changes as a paradigm shift, in which power is slowly moving away from the small groups of people toward large groups of people. This is happening in the music industry, Hollywood, big journalism, and politics. Sifry admits to being a hyper-optimists. Giving the majority of citizens the ability to create and distribute their own media is "empowering and democratic," he says.

This is complicated stuff. But I think it's safe to say that, whether or not they understand it as a shift from something different, the participatory web is an integral part of American millenials' lives.

But in Italy we seem stuck in the passive past. Indeed, Sifry says that on the web, Italy is in the place the U.S. was five years ago; the UK is two years behind. These words could have been perceived as offensive by the Italians here, but instead I noticed a sense of resignation. The folks I'm meeting here love Twitter; they're liveblogging during the sessions and we've had in-depth talks about technology and politics. But they are forward-thinking misfits. The majority of their fellow citizens don't have the internet at home, and seem content to text like it's 1999. One journalist I met, who works for one of the biggest fashion magazines in the country, complained that in his office in Milan he and his officemates share a regular cable internet connection. "I have to view those image icons in my browser as I wait for images to load," he told me. "I thought I'd never see those again."

The Italians are already routing around certain structural problems. They're building high-speed wifi networks in the Alps instead of cable; in small groups, they're experimenting with software that, as Ross Mayfield describes it, is "made out of people"; and they're holding conferences like this, in which American optimists like Sifry and Mayfield can offer their visions of how to change the world.

But as we agreed at dinner last night, we Americans are hopelessly optimistic, while the Italians constantly counter our hopeful outlook with cries of, "Yes, but..."

Oh, and here are a couple of photos of the lovely town we're in:

Square in Udine

The Alps