That is the claim of Dan Lyons in the recent Newsweek, wherein he claims that the trend of consumer internet companies (Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, etc.) making gobs of money by doing essentially shallow things will draw engineers and entrepreneurs away from solving the hard problems that have traditionally driven Silicon Valley.
Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch disagrees, saying that Facebook and its ilk aren’t shallow and are also technically hard, since they have to scale to support so many users. Most of Schonfeld’s article is, quite frankly, dumb (I mean seriously, using anti-virus software, which solves a real and burdensome problem, to show that internet companies are useful too, is nuts. And saying that Twitter’s many-to-many communication is a bigger tech achievement than the telephone network…dude, do you even know anything about technology?), but I appreciate his viewpoint and that of the many comments his article generated (as usual with comments, they are split between wisdom and inanity).
It won’t surprise regular readers of Thoughtbasket to learn that I come down somewhere between these two poles. I wrote a post on this very topic recently, riffing off a former Gartner analyst who said pretty much exactly what Gross said. Yes, Facebook makes people happy, and some of the technology required to build it to scale might help build other products. But it’s basically a toy, and the technology isn’t that innovative. More importantly, it sure isn’t curing cancer or solving the energy problem.
It’s OK for fun products to do well; Facebook and Zynga make tons of money because people love using them. But Lyons makes a good point: the wealth and attention being lavished on these fun products could lead smart people to build ever-shallower products (hello Foursquare) instead of solving big and important problems. Silicon Valley is a big place, and there seem to be a lot of entrepreneurs attacking all sorts of problems, but the tendency of the press (particularly TechCrunch) to focus on consumer internet companies as if they were the only things of note in Silicon Valley adds to the problem Lyons describes.