Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Web 2.0

O-Reilly -- What is Web 2.0

Web 2.0: it's one of the most popular tags on, generates huge amounts of interest among the people interested in the business side of tech companies, but there's a strong undercurrent of sentiment in geekdom that the whole thing is just one great big marketing gimmick. Personally, I think that there's definitely a "there" there, but it's highly misunderstood.

The O'reilly article above explains a fair bit, but the way we arrived at even having a concept of Web 2.0 is what interests me. From some of the commentary around you'd think it's a brand new, revolutionary conception of the way the Internet works. It isn't.

One of the best analogies I've seen for Web 2.0 is that it's like version 2.0 of a software application: promising to do all the things that version 1.0 was supposed to do but couldn't quite manage. Let's apply the analogy to the actual development of software as I understand it...

ShinyAppv1.0 has been released. Work has started on the next version. In the open-source world you actually get to see this process happening. Features are added, bugs are ironed out, new things are tried. At some arbitrary point a feature freeze sets in, and there's a push towards a final release. At some arbitrary point - perhaps a set date, perhaps an official pronouncement that all major bugs have been ironed out - the product is deemed "complete", and ShinyAppv2.0 appears. To the unclued in user, it may look like the new, improved product has appeared full-formed like Athena being birthed fully-grown from Zeus' skull. In reality, it's the culmination of a long series of development of various aspects of the software, some of which may still have been incomplete at the time of the "official" software release.

All Web 2.0 really is, is the maturation of several technological and sociological trends that have been developing for years, but which are just now coalescing into a comprehensible whole. Web 2.0 isn't just a product label you can slap onto your tech business in order to make a profit. it's a...let's see: it's a current snapshot of the significant sociological and psychological changes in human online interactivity that are occurring as a result of recent technological advances in many-to-many communication media (collectively referred to as "the Internet") as well as the discovery of new methods of using the older technologies. Business people shouldn't be discussing it; social scientists should.

The O'reilly crowd misses this point that their business crowd really should be made aware of: these trends are continuing, and the Next Big Thing(tm) may be the further evolution of a trend that nobody has anticipated because everyone's trying to conform to some arbitrarily defined, rigid standard of "where the web is right now", aka Web 2.0.

The other thing missing from their analysis is of a technological advance that changes the dynamic of the web significantly: they talk about users creating and consuming each other's content a lot, but neglect to mention the advances in software technology that gives users significant ability to not receive content that they don't want to receive: I'm thinking of the Firefox extension Adblock here. What's a business-person to do when the preferred method of revenue-raising on the web today - online ads - is getting blocked out by a growing number of users? And then there's the Greasemonkey Firefox extension, which provides a whole framework for giving the user control over how they choose to rearrange a content-provider's content for their own consumption....

Web 2.0 is primarily a marketing term, but it really shouldn't be. It ought to be the jumping off point for determining how the Information Revolution is affecting, and will continue to affect, modern society.

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