What is This Web 2.0 Thing, Anyway?

I must admit, I assumed “Web 2.0” was merely hype right from the first time I heard the term. To me, it recalled the lingo of the heady, breathless late 1990s dot-com boom.

Now that I’ve learned more about Web 2.0 I think that, as an umbrella concept, it is indeed mostly hype. That is, this term seems to be tossed around mainly in order to promote or sell conferences, books, and consulting services; or to suffuse a person, group, or organization with a vague air of techno-coolness.

Of course, not all hype is useless, or baseless. I actually believe there is considerable value in the Web 2.0 concept. However, what makes it so valuable is not at all new, but rather as old as the human mind itself…

WEB 2.0 DEFINED, SORT OF…

Like most buzzwords, few people who use the term “Web 2.0” agree on its meaning. So if you’re confused about what it is, exactly – well, get used to that situation.

Here’s my own take on Web 2.0:

More than anything else, Web 2.0 refers to a mindset. In turn, this mindset yields a decentralized, continuous approach to technology development, and a collaborative way of using tools or creating value.

I think of the Web 2.0 mindset in this way:

  • Developer’s perspective: Create a user-friendly web-based service or tool and let people play with it. Make sure it allows some user interaction (or at least interaction of users’ data) by default. Be flexible and open about what your creation can become or how people can use it. “Should” is a bad word in Web 2.0. Just watch how people use it, learn from that, and roll with it. This way, the more people who use it, the richer it gets.
  • User’s perspective: Find new ways to create, publish, share, and explore with the help of simple web-based services, most of which are free. Use these services (or combine services creatively) to collaborate with other people as much or as little as you want. Whatever you create with those services is yours, and you can take it with you if you want to. Oh, and by the way, even if you’re using a service purely for selfish reasons, with no intention of sharing your contributions or creations, you’re still helping to enrich that service.

The Web 2.0 mindset borrows heavily from the culture of open source software. Although the technical details may differ, both leverage flexible collaboration (both direct and indirect) to create value and fuel continual evolution and refinement. Here are a few simple examples:

  • Tagging: User-defined categories in services such as Del.icio.us, Furl, Technorati, and Flickr are perhaps the most ubiquitous hallmark of Web 2.0 services and tools. This allows users to collectively assemble somewhat inconsistent and chaotic but often intriguing and useful bodies of topical content.
  • Feeds: Whether RSS or Atom, the point is that feeds allow people to share data conveniently and automatically. This becomes especially serendipitous and timely when combined with tags or search queries. When you picture feeds as a multidirectional intermingling of data streams, they start to seem collectively more like a tapestry than a technology.
  • Comments: Whether on blogs, online photo collections, or product reviews, tools that allow users/readers to append comments to a piece of content expand the value of that content by creating a conversation. They also can link that conversation to other content items or conversations happening elsewhere. Creating or reinforcing new connections between disparate content items has the same effect on the web as growing neurons in your brain: The more options that information has for moving around, the more that can be done with that information.

THE IRONY: WEB 2.0 IS NOT NEW

One of the seminal missives defining Web 2.0 was published by Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Media) on Sept. 30. 2005. In “What Is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” he observed:

End of the Software Release Cycle. …One of the defining characteristics of internet-era [Web 2.0] software is that it is delivered as a service, not as a product.”

That’s a great point. But then: Why promote a buzzword like “Web 2.0” which connotes a traditional software release? I just don’t get that part – but it does crack me up.

Here’s the thing: Web 2.0 is an extension of the very old concept of collective creativity. That is: People who work to develop something together – especially if they’re collaborating with a spirit of play or individual exploration – end up creating collective value which far exceeds anything that could have been consciously planned, outlined, and “released.” It’s a process of organic growth.

This is how languages, art forms, and architectural styles develop. It’s the treasure of derivative “remix” culture. It’s blurring the line between developers and users.

No matter how much of a loner you think you are, you rely on other people’s insight and efforts every day to form your opinions, make decisions, and choose actions. This process is largely unconscious. It’s just how the human mind works. We have developed fairly advanced mental skills and external tools for storing, recalling, and communicating information because we think better in concert.

So Web 2.0 is not new. It’s just that more technology and media have evolved to the point that our tools can now work a bit more like our minds.

But if you like the buzzword, if it helps you make certain points or focus certain efforts or discussions, then fine. Use the phrase where it’s helpful, and realize its vagueness, flexibility, and limits.

And remember: Before long “Web 2.0” is likely to sound as dated as “Space Age.” So don’t get too attached to it.

5 thoughts on What is This Web 2.0 Thing, Anyway?

  1. Here’s what I find puzzling about this: software evolves, even on a daily basis. Given that, what sense does it make to mark an arbitrary point in time and say “any features subsequent to this point are 2.0”? Baffling..

  2. I like the points you are making here. I agree that there is some value in the ideas behind Web 2.0. As you have said, it is also a direct extension of some very old ideas relating to collaboration. Too often the hype surrounding a “new” development often turns out to be something less than new. The word “extension” makes far more sense. While there may be a modest degree of added value, the underlying assumptions behind this notion called Web 2.0 are not new. Tagging, feeds and comments offer a variation on web interaction, but quality of thought and expression will remain the basis for creating real value.

  3. All of a sudden, the “Blogoshere,” a name that is so utterly silly, I have difficulty giving it the hate it truly deserves, is alive and kicking with discussions about �Web 2.0,� a name that is so utterly hate-able, I even hate it’s silliness.

    Now, despite my quite restraint, I think this is actually an important moment to take note of in the evolution of the Web and in our understanding of it’s potential uses.

    It’s a positive step and in an ideal world, the name would reflect this, instead of suggesting that the much dreaded hype we participated in not so long ago, is back. But this time it’s just a little bit better.

    In truth, the journey is better described as a series of incremental steps. This is easy to confuse by Web Professionals because we are just discovering a fundamental and enduring quality inherent in the Web’s design: it’s value as a social tool.

  4. The blog network I work for, Know More Media, exemplifies the shift from “Web 1.0” to “Web 2.0” quite nicely, in my opinion. Before, I wrote Web articles for static sites for Tornado Solutions (sort of the precursor to Know More Media). The articles, while informative, didn’t allow user comments and didn’t specify what date they were published. The sites lacked that participatory magic that “Web 2.0” captures. So now I feel great to be part of an improved, more collective and less individual experience.

  5. Web 2.0 represents a new shift in the usefulness of the internet and internet applications. It is not revolutionary moment in time marked by a particular event or product launch; rather it is an evolution marked more by the dogged efforts of many individuals and groups across the internet to make it BETTER.
    Don�t get me wrong web 1.0 is still around and will be for much longer, it’s just that web 2.0 is finally hitting the mainstream.
    Most mainstream users won’t know they are now ‘web 2.0 enabled’, they will just eventually figure out that what they are doing is now ‘easier, faster, better’ or that some new functionality is now available, some creative new idea has finally landed.

    For more, try – http://www.harostreetmedia.com/node/24

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