Putting Web 2.0 in Perspective
At a recent
conference, I overheard one communications professional ask another, “What is our Web 2.0 strategy?”
what exactly they meant by a Web 2.0 strategy, despite my background and
experience with the Web and new media, and, soon after, decided to register for
the official Web 2.0 conference, set to take place November 7-9 in San
Francisco to learn more. I visited
the conference Web site and found a quote from Ross Mayfield, “Web 1.0 was
commerce. Web 2.0 is people,” as well as an impressive guest roster featuring a
mix of voices from both traditional and new media firms. However, when I went
to sign up, the $3,000 event was sold out. I then began to search for a comparable event and stumbled
upon the Web site for ‘Web 2point1,’ where I learned that the
non-profit organization running the site had chosen that particular moniker
after being threatened with legal action by O’Reilly Media (who coined the term
Web 2.0) and CMP.
help but note the irony that the Web 2.0 conference was cost-prohibitive to
most ordinary folks, and that a non-profit had been sued by the organizers of
the Web 2.0 conference for attempting to use the same name. After all, isn’t Web 2.0 supposed to be
about participatory media and collaborative development? Isn’t it about people?
exactly is Web 2.0, and will it replace what we now know as the Web and the way
in which we all communicate, as many seem to claim?
It may very
well be true that in three thousand years, historians will view the development
and widespread adoption of the Internet as a landmark event in the history of
human communications, but whether that development will be responsible for
providing a 'new mind for an old species' (see below) is not only questionable
thinking, it is dangerous. The
problem with the rhetoric of technological revolutions is that it loudly
proclaims, as if in glowing neon letters, that this era is something new; the
past is no more; and that the technological innovation will usher us into a
utopian era. What typically
follows is that, unwittingly, we find ourselves repeating the same patterns of
behavior, waiting for the next revolutionary technology to come around and
change the world.
summer of 2005, Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, wrote that hyperlink
technology was unleashing a new era of communicative participation "found
nowhere else on the planet or in history." In fact, he heralded the present media landscape as the
start of a revolutionary era in human social interactions:
Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the
past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third
millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental
with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers
of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own
minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most
complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species
began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand
network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for
our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any
previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search,
total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.
prophetic proclamation reminded me of another passage I had recently read in Scientific
American that hailed a "new
organization of society:"
A state of things in which every individual, however
secluded, will have at call every other individual in the community, to the
saving of no end of social and business complications, of needless goings to
and fro, of disappointments, delays, and a countless host of those great and
little evils and annoyances which go so far under present conditions to make
life laborious and unsatisfactory.
-- 1880 Scientific American (cited in Marvin, 1998)
more than 100 years separates these respective pennings. The Scientific American article was published on February
14, 1880 and focused on the telephone’s impact on society. And today, the
notion that the telephone has helped make the machinations of modern life
possible is not in question. On
the contrary, however, the idea that the telephone has had a revolutionary
effect on society, eliminating the 'evils and annoyances' that make our life
'laborious and unsatisfactory' is, in fact, in question. When I read this passage from Scientific
couldn’t help but wonder how the wide-eyed journalist who had written the
article might have felt if he suddenly found himself bombarded by telemarketers
all day? Did Kelly consider how Al
Qaeda used the “collaborative interface for our civilization” to access
information on the structural design of the World Trade Center (Booth &
Dunn 2002) and, additionally, to plan the attack? (US Institute of Peace,
technology changes our lives, but it does not replace or necessarily improve
what’s been used in the past, nor does it become part of everyday life without
other factors playing a significant role.
Kelly is often thought of as the lyrical voice of Web 2.0, it is Tim O'Reilly
who has taken a more pragmatic approach to its development and is credited for
coining the phrase Web 2.0 (and subsequently claiming the term as his
possession). His white paper, What
is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of
Software, is considered one of the more
defining explanations of Web 2.0 and not surprisingly focuses on the
technological and market aspects of the Web’s newest trends.
to O'Reilly, Web 2.0 is a 'gravitational core' of standards and all prominent
sites are located at 'varying distances from the core.' Web 2.0 applications share six
The Web as Platform
Data is the Next Intel Inside
End of the Software Release
Lightweight Programming Models
Software Above the Level of a
In order to
define Web 2.0, he offers a series of the “old” vs. the “new” to help
differentiate between 1.0 and 2.0. His first comparison of Web 1.0 and 2.0 relates to what he terms
“standard bearers,” or Netscape and Google. According to O'Reilly, Netscape intended to use the
dominance of its Web browser to corner the market on Web server products,
similar to what Microsoft did with the operating system and software
applications. "In the end,”
he writes, “both web browsers and web servers turned out to be commodities, and
value moved ‘up the stack’ to services delivered over the web platform." According to O'Reilly, Google is
fundamentally different from Netscape in that it is delivered as a service
instead of a product, and its key value is its data.
should not seek to define itself in contrast to or separate from 1.0
metaphor of value moving up a stack seems to contradict the notion of the “old”
vs. the “new.” The concept of a
stack implies a layered relationship between different technologies. In O'Reilly's own words, "Google
happens in the space between browser and search engine and destination content
server, as an enabler or middleman between the user and his or her online
experience." In this
statement, O'Reilly acknowledges that Google plays a role in a broader media
process that also integrates the Web browser. Without Google, the online experience may not be as dynamic,
yet without the Web browser, the online experience would be impossible. Comparing the business practices of
Google and Netscape is one thing; comparing their products, as landmark
technologies that are representative of their respective eras, seems counterintuitive. For two landmark technologies to truly
be compared and contrasted there should be something intrinsically similar
about them. And from what I can
tell, these two technologies don’t fit that bill.
more, categorizing earlier Web technologies as ‘Web 1.0’ and new Web
technologies as ‘Web 2.0’ ignores the manner in which old technologies mesh
with new. It also marginalizes
much of the powerful thinking from onlookers, activists, engineers and
developers who helped to shape the Internet that we have and use today. Finally, defining Web 2.0 as a
revolutionary phase in the development of the Internet fails to acknowledge
that this new dawn in the history of the Web is really a part of a cycle. Indeed, there are certain cyclical
patterns underlying the development of technologies that we easily miss when we
place the focus on the recent or present.
instance, O'Reilly's claim that the foremost tenet of Web 2.0 is that the 'Web
becomes a platform should resound with those familiar with the history of the
computer. As Haddon (1998)
explains, the early visions for the computer were shaped in a mainframe
paradigm, in which one of the foremost visions was a centralized mainframe
providing various machine-driven services that were then passed to the user
through various telecommunications channels. Ultimately, this model was replaced by the personal computer
running local applications. Now,
in an ironic twist of fate, this old vision for the mainframe resonates with
the current vision of 'Web 2.0.'
components of Web 2.0, or what makes Web 2.0 different from Web 1.0, are not
necessarily new, if you take a closer look at the Web’s history. For instance,
O'Reilly claims that Web 2.0 harnesses ‘collective intelligence.’ Those familiar with the Web’s past
would know that this ‘collective intelligence’ has accompanied the Internet
since its inception, symbolized most evidently via the open source movement,
which has helped shape the Web since its birth, as well as through early communities,
such as the WELL. Those
familiar with the Web’s history would also recognize that excessive optimism in
the Web’s collaborative nature often overshadows its potential negative
consequences, which we’ve seen recently with spamming, cyber-stalking, flaming
and the over-commercialization of Web communities.
To take a
more recent example, a recent edition of the Economist (2006) published a great article
on the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) Second Life, referred to as "the best
example of Web 2.0" because of its focus on user-generated content and
"celebration of creativity." While reading the article I was struck by the resemblance between the
development of MMORPGs and that of multi-user domains (MUDs), which is
typically recognized as its progenitor. What initially began as an action-oriented text-based role-playing game
eventually began to take on a more social form, exemplified by Tiny-MUD, developed by Jim Aspnes at Carnegie Mellon University, and
provided users with the ability to code and create new objects and
landscapes. Given that, are the
denizens of the Web 2.0 MMORPG Second Life somehow more creative than the
denizens of the Web 1.0 Tiny-MUD? The question, which I hope is rhetorical, begs yet another: why are MUDs
not mentioned when we talk about Web 2.0 MMORPGs, such as Second Life? Are there not things we can learn by
looking back to explore the social aspects of MUDs? Take for example, academic Sherry Turkle, who is well known
for her research in the social impact of MUDs. Referring to Second Life as Web 2.0, while discounting the
MUD as 'Web 1.0,' ignores the potential applications of her work on the new
technology, which would be a major mistake.
needs to place less emphasis on the technological and more on the social
that the development of certain technologies is inevitable, or that the social
influence of a technology is inevitable, is an over-simplification at best; and
most likely, a myth. Simply
because a technology is available and potentially serves a real purpose does
not mean that it is likely to, at least not without the influence and adoption
of other factors. The great
British cultural theorist Raymond Williams is, perhaps, the most effective at
arguing this openness. According
to Williams, technologies are inherently social products; they are the result
of inventions, related developments and even non-technological advances or
shifts in society and culture. As Raymond Williams (1974) explains, "The invention of television
was no single event or series of events. It depended on a complex of inventions and developments in electricity,
telegraphy, photography, and motion pictures, and radio." Furthermore, there were numerous
non-technological developments, such as efforts from lobby groups that shaped
what came to be known as television. Similarly, the Internet that we see today is the gradual outcome of
innovations across network technology, microchips, software development and
personal computers, among others, but also in non-technological areas, such as
X and Network Neutrality, a key issue that will help determine the eventual
shape of the Internet.
theory goes against the inherent belief that Web 2.0 technologies will
inevitably turn the Web into a "global brain," as O'Reilly explains.
Besides being shortsighted, this determinist line of thought is, potentially,
dangerous and marginalizes the role of human agency in the innovation
process. The notion that a
'Machine' will provide a 'new way of thinking' assumes a unidirectional flow of
influence: from the technology that we use to our behavioral patterns as
humans, which neglects the role of social factors in determining the shape of a
technology. Clearly, instead of
simply glorifying the technology, assuming that it’s moving in the right
direction, there needs to be a renewed focus on the non-technological elements
of Web 2.0.
should be about the people
In just under
10 years, we have used various terms, from ‘reaping’ to ‘harnessing,’ to define
the Web’s technological and social potential. The first real substantial work
on virtual communities is commonly attributed to Howard Rheingold‘s work, aptly
titled 'The Virtual Community.' Four years after he published his
works, John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong from McKinsey & Company responded
with 'Net Gain,' in which they outlined what they perceived to be the
"real" value of online communities: their potential as a commodity
(1997). Ironically, within the
first several paragraphs, the authors state, "like every communications
network, the Internet is all about establishing and reinforcing connections
between people," before shifting gears and outlining the "real"
value of online communities. As
the book description on the McKinsey & Company Web site reads: "Net
Gain served as a manifesto for a new generation of competitors seeking to reap the rewards of the on-line
defining characteristic of Web 2.0, as explained by O'Reilly, specific to its
users, is the 'harnessing of collective intelligence." As O’Reilly explains, current Web
technologies have allowed companies to “make their mark on the Web” by
“harnessing collective intelligence,” but what is the benefit for those people
whose intelligence is being harnessed? The use of the word 'harness' is
limiting and ironic, in a sense. The verb 'harness' is a derivative of a word initially used to describe a
"stable gear consisting of an arrangement of leather straps fitted to a
draft animal so that it can be attached to and pull a cart," according to
the Princeton WordNet dictionary. Are we harnessing collective intelligence or embracing it? If we are to listen to the words of Ross Mayfield - "Web
1.0 was commerce. Web 2.0 is
people," then we should embrace it.
2005, Madden and Lenhart (Pew, 2005) reported that 57 percent of teens who use
the Internet could be considered content producers in some way or another. In
2006, Fox and Lenhart (Pew) reported that 12 million American adults keep a Web
log. These are significant trends,
yet are neglected in much of the talk of Web 2.0. If Web 2.0 is to hold any water, it must begin to more fully
consider the Internet’s social aspects. For example, what is the significance of the Internet for the teens that
are currently content producers? How are technologies that are classified as Web 2.0 affecting the way in
which we go about our daily lives? These are the types of questions we must be asking.
initially brainstorming ideas for an article on Web 2.0, our chief technology
officer Bob Schmidt made the valid point: the use of '2.0' is ironic. O'Reilly
claims that in Web 2.0, "None of the trappings of the old software
industry are present. No scheduled
software releases, just continuous improvement." Well, the 2.0 signifier is representative of the software
release cycle, isn’t it?
tenets of Web 2.0 not apply to the offline world?
In a true
Web 2.0 world a non-profit organization shouldn't have to worry about being
threatened with legal action for using the name "Web 2.0." In a true Web 2.0 world, the name Web
2.0 wouldn't be trademarked. The proof of whether Web 2.0 is representative of a new era in
communications will be in the pudding. If we are truly linking ourselves into a global brain, and the
technology is leading us in that direction, we should see real world impact on
the way we live and behave. If Web
2.0 holds water, we should be able to embrace its principles in the way we work
and how we communicate.
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