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.