8 Lessons I learned About the Future of Internet and Technology at TechCrunch Disrupt

A few weeks ago I had a great opportunity to attend the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. Over the course of 3 days I was front row for some phenomenally insightful speakers, thought-provoking panels and at least 50 startup exhibitions. The overarching topic was "disruptive technologies and industry trends." Here are 8 core lessons I learned:

1) Strive to achieve things that give people pride to be alive in this generation
This ambitious goal was born on the opening panel about “what makes an internet treasure” and resonates as the high bar we should all aspire to pursue with our work. Mark Pincus, founder of casual games developer Zynga (maker of pop culture hit Farmville), gave a poignant example of how this can be achieved even in unexpected places. Mark’s vision for Zynga is to make people’s daily lives have more meaning. He’s trying to achieve this by enabling people to build more meaningful relationships through gaming, teaching people how to accomplish goals, and turning entertainment into social action successes (Zynga’s fundraising effort for Haiti in Farmville raised millions of dollars).

2) Gaming mechanics are joining social functionality as a standard feature set
Today it’s almost universally expected that content sites contain certain baseline forms of social interaction: comments, voting, and sharing. Also, with the rapid deployment of Facebook & Twitter’s social graphs, we increasingly expect to see a social recommendation overlay of which content our friends recommend most. Now a further layer of interaction is set to become a standard: gaming mechanics. Mobile applications are rapidly playing catch-up to Foursquare by building reward and ranking systems into their products, but the trend doesn’t stop there: several start-ups are rolling out plug-ins that enable every site to integrate gaming mechanics quickly with a few lines of code. One such company, Badgeville, touts gaming mechanics as a way to incentivize critical behaviors, and develop a new level of funnel analytics.

3) Intelligent curation of content is more important than ever as the pace of content creation accelerates
Lots of companies are working on smart ways to filter and display the most valuable information from the stream. One pathway is giving users powerful curation tools. Datasift is a platform to filter Twitter content by very specific data points such as topic or authority. Storify lets users snag and combine all types of media from everywhere into one curated story page that updates everywhere it exists in real time. Another method is algorithmic creation of content. Tweetbeat develops robust news pages about topics & events displaying only the valuable Twitter content, complete with replayable timelines. And the winner of TechCrunch Disrupt, Qwiki, answers search queries with interactive audio/video compilations that feels right out of a futuristic Disney movie.

4) We will soon be making purchases and payments in very unexpected ways
Ecommerce is blowing up right now. The local deals space is so rich and so competitive that Groupon actually got on stage to seriously announce a dating service Grouspawn, which promises that anyone who uses a Groupon on a first date and then goes on to have a child with that person is eligible to win a full college scholarship for their kid. On the other end of the spectrum, Wildfire has built a robust self-service tool that enables brands to run Groupon-style deals and other contests right on their Facebook page. But perhaps the most exciting area of development is mobile payments: Square was on hand to tout its simple tool to turn iPhones/iPads into credit card reader. PayPal is enabling payments by tapping iPhones together. MobilePay launched an iPhone app that handles credit card payments and loyalty cards for stores. Gifi even lets you leave surprise cash gifts for friends at places you know they’ll check into on Foursquare.

5) It’s a golden era of technological breakthroughs, but what about the ramifications?
Google CEO Eric Schmidt spoke inspiringly about the solutions Google and other innovative technology companies are solving. Cloud computing and ubiquitous connectivity provides nearly everyone with levels intelligence, memory and computation that once dictated power, disrupting countless economic models by leveling the playing field. Access to all this information is a source of joy because “satisfaction of one's curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life” (Dr. Linus Pauling). But as technology gets smarter, companies like Google and Linkedin are starting to grapple with a big question: in a future where you have all of the answers before you even look, what about the joy of serendipitous discovery? Schmidt says: “in the future we are never lost, but there was something fun about getting lost. What are the implications of all this intelligence and how small the world has become?”

6) As competing products reach feature parity, the skill is to design interaction
Walking through a startup showroom and reading the trades lately has made one thing incredibly clear: it’s hard to have a differentiating product on features alone. The first question every judges panel asked of startups was: could your competitor own this space just by adding features (anyone trying to compete with Foursquare really needs to think about this). Quora co-founder Charlie Cheever was challenged to answer how Quora would stay significant in the face of competition from Facebook Questions. Charlie’s answer was that Quora was specifically designed to elicit high quality information with its product, rather than large quantities of answers to masses of questions. They knew everyone could offer a Q/A service, so the skill was in the design of interaction. These words should ring true for Digg founder Kevin Rose, who’s desperately trying to save Digg from rapidly descending into irrelevancy because its product simply wasn’t designed well for interaction.

7) The big marking implication of mobile is ubiquitous connectivity increases access to moments of truth
Online advertising’s biggest impact has been its ability to have immediate and traceable impact when paired with ecommerce. Mobile advertising has unprecedented capability to connect marketing and consumers during similar moments of potential off-line purchase. The challenge is improving ROI by pairing the plethora of mobile ad inventory with consumer intent. Hyper-local search can do this; mobile display media however is still more often relying on an interception approach. The head of digital marketing for P&G said Gillette won’t pay to give a coupon to someone who was about to enter a store and buy their product at full price anyway. It sounds like to win over clients like P&G mobile marketers need to crack intent, change habits, and instigate referrals in real time.

8) Each era of Internet evolution is defined by the dominant form of intelligence
The popular model of the evolution of the web (e.g. 2.0) classifies generations by type of interaction (e.g. professional content vs. user generated content). A newer model focuses on type of intelligence that dictates classification + curation + discovery. In this model we’ve lived through three distinct generations of Internet evolution: the portal (curation by human editor), search (ranking by algorithm), and social (community recommendations). Each generation is capable of producing more relevant information, which is the key determinant of value, and ultimately how disruptive the information model is. Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin, says the modern media company needs to incorporate expert curation, intelligent search, and social graphs to be successful. Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel says the entrepreneur trying to change the world should be thinking about what the next generation of the Internet could be powered by.

So what do you think? If you watched any of TechCrunch Disrupt, I am very interested in hearing what you took away from the conference. If you’re catching up by reading blogs like this, I’d love to hear what you think about the topics in general. Please share any thoughts.