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Does the use of Web 2.0 make people more entrepreneurial?

This is one among a number of questions being explored within a pamphlet that our Director of Programme, Adam Lent, will be publishing in the autumn. A central message from the paper will be that the millennial generation (roughly speaking, those aged between 18-30) are more entrepreneurial than their forebears, and that harnessing their drive and dynamism will be critical if the country is to emerge from the ‘permanent crisis’ and economic rut we’ve become so accustomed to. Although there may be conflicting evidence, the majority of the research appears to back this argument. A survey undertaken by Elance, for instance, indicates that 83 per cent of young people see working independently or freelancing as a cornerstone of their career strategy (although we should probably take this with a pinch of salt).

The important question we should be asking is why so? There are likely to be many explanations for the rise in entrepreneurial behaviours among the millennial generation, but perhaps one of the biggest factors at play is the now widespread use of Web 2.0 platforms, among them blogs, wikis, social networking sites and online marketplaces. First, they provide an outlet for existing entrepreneurial behaviours. Web 2.0 radically diminishes the transaction costs of starting and running a business and for many people a website and an email account is now all they need to get going. This is arguably tempting increasing numbers to take the plunge and start the business, social enterprise or charity they’ve always wanted to.

In itself, this is nothing particularly new or profound. What is perhaps a more interesting hypothesis is that the use of Web 2.0 technologies actually nurtures entrepreneurial behaviours and attitudes that weren't previously there. One American study we came across seems to add weight to this theory. The researchers found that high adopters of Web 2.0 show significantly higher levels of ‘entrepreneurial orientation’ (EO) than low adopters. A popular measure of entrepreneurship, the level of EO is determined by a person or organisation’s innovativeness, willingness to take risks, autonomy, and competitive aggressiveness. In practice, participants were asked to grade themselves against different indicators, including ‘I often think about inventing new products’ and ‘I am persistent about completing projects’.

It may be that taking part in small acts of content creation, for instance writing a blog, posting a tweet or uploading a video, serves to draw people in to ever more sophisticated levels of activity. The final stop along this stepping-stone like process may be the decision to build a website and start a business. There may even be a virtuous circle effect taking place. The Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, cited in Paul Mason’s excellent and very readable Why it’s all kicking off, has observed that the more autonomous people are, the more they use the internet, and the more they use the internet, the more autonomous they become.

This may sound too simplistic. There certainly needs to be more research looking at whether the link between Web 2.0 and entrepreneurialism involves causation or mere correlation. But if there is indeed a relationship between the two, it indicates that the use of these new technologies may not be turning young people into the stereotypical disengaged couch potato but rather fostering a more entrepreneurial-minded generation which the country is clearly calling out for.


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