Does the UK’s creative sector actually know how to make sense of the opportunities the Internet provides?

I asked myself this question while chairing a panel about the opportunities for SMEs in the brave new world of “Web 2.0” last night.

It was an event by Cass Creatives and InSync. Cass Creatives is a joint initiative from Cass Business School’s Department of Management working with iKnowHow, while InSync is a showcase programme for London’s audio-visual and digital media sectors.

Somewhere between 50-70 people crammed into the Zero One venue in Soho to hear a panel on “Digital Utopia – Fact or Fiction”.

The premise of the debate was this: the so-called Web 2.0 environment looks like it could create new opportunities for creative SMEs. The old adage of ‘build it and they will come’ never really worked until we had the likes of Google, and more specifically enthusiastic bloggers to talk up and promote new digital projects and businesses. This is the ‘social media’ people keep banging on about – the ability to get noticed, so long as what you do gains approval by enough people talking online.

A lot of big online businesses have actually started out with altruism at their core. Craigslist, Myspace and, even Google (which famously said “Don’t be evil”) started out as pretty simple projects designed to give people a platform. They are now, of course, million or billion dollar businesses.

The speakers included:

Andy Bell, Managing Director, Mint Digital which will launch Bloombox – a Web 2.0 platform that enables broadcasters to leverage their media profile to create user-generated shows. Michela Ledwidge, filmmaker, MOD Films, who is currently in post production on her first 35mm film production, Sanctuary. This will be unique in that elements of the film will be released under a Creative Commons license for re-mixing by the online community. Sameer Padania, manager, Interworld Radio, and Editor of Africavox is currently working on a project researching relationships between mainstream and ethnic media in the UK. Martin Stiksel, co-founder, Last.FM, is working on a Last.FM, a online community of music fans who collaboratively rate music.

However, despite this eminent panel I got the feeling from the audience that they didn’t quite ‘get it’.

One questioner asked “Yes but how do we make money and sell our content online?’. This seems fair, but largely missed the point of what the panel was talking about.

What is going on right now online is different to what happened six years ago. Today, anyone can create online content and get the online community to rate it, talk about it and distribute it. The affordability of online tools and widespread broadband has created a totally new market.

Some examples: is a new way for film and video makers to distribute short-form video. Google Video does the same but even allows you to sell it. iTunes and iPodder now allow anyone to create an audio or video podcast and have it distributed to a large potential audience very easily. Blogger, Typepad and any number of blog hosting services allow anyone to write on the Net and be discovered. RSS aggregators and mashups are allowing good work to bubble to the surface.

Even at the simplest level, emailing your friends and asking them to link to or tell other people about your online work can work wonders. Moblog UK for instance was created just by the founders emailing their friends and a handful of key influencers.

The simple fact is that today, even the kids in the street can create and edit pretty interesting creative works. Sure, this is still a step away from actually creating a business, but without getting out there and trying, nothing will ever happen.

There is an issue about culture here. In the US, entrepreneurs are respected MORE if they have tried and failed a few times. In the UK, it seems you only have one chance, hence why so many potential businesses never start because people are just too afraid of screwing up and attracting ridicule.

But guess what? That old world needs to die. Creative people need to get out there, start working with clever online developers and just seeing what happens.