December 14, 2006

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Meet the new Web
Same as the old Web
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Every now and then I get a question that I really don’t want to answer. Sometimes it’s just because I don’t really know the answer, but often I know the answer isn’t truly satisfying, helpful or informative.

“What the heck is Web 2.0?” is one of those questions.

The simple, succinct, cynical answer is, nothing. It’s nothing. It’s a buzzword, it has no real meaning, you can ignore it and not miss a beat in technonerd circles.

The term itself has been around in earnest for a year or two, though folks were probably using it back in the ’90s as soon as the first browser was released. It refers loosely to Web sites that involve users in creating and sharing, rather than just consuming, content. MySpace, YouTube and Wikipedia are among the most prominent of these user-centric sites, but even such geriatric Web sites as Google and Amazon can arguably be called part of Web 2.0. Google’s search engine ranks sites by how many other sites link to them, while Amazon shows you what other people with similar search or purchase histories have bought or looked at.

Calling something Two Point Oh has its origins in software versioning, when the second major, complete release of a product would be called version 2.0. OK, so this is the second version of the Web? No, because there’s no single Web out there to be updated and released. Microsoft abandoned this versioning system with the release of Windows 95, throwing open the gates for just about every vaguely geeky product for sale to appropriate it with little regard for accuracy. (Why is “Season 2.0” of Battlestar Galactica just the first 10 episodes of the season? Shouldn’t it be the same as the first season, only with more features and fewer bugs? And shouldn’t the whole series, a remake of a 1970s cheese classic, be called 2.0?)

The problem with the term is that its meaning is so nebulous, marketers don’t necessarily understand it before slapping it onto their latest product. Want to make your site sound new and flashy? Say it’s Web 2.0 enabled! Want venture capitalists to bite on your business idea dreamed up in the shower with a business plan written on a napkin? Position it as part of Web 2.0!

The term, then, has lost even more usefulness as its meaning has been diluted by being attached to products and Web sites that really didn’t merit it. The tech publishing firm O’Reilly claims credit for originating the idea of Web 2.0 along with MediaLive International at a conference brainstorming session. The burst of the dot-com bubble, they said, was not so much a crash of the Web as the emergence of a new paradigm, that of user participation rather than simple user acceptance of what companies put online.

By this definition, something as simple as blogging is part of Web 2.0. The ability for people to comment and of the blog to track what other sites are linking to makes it different from the old personal Web site. The end content, then, is not controlled by one producer, but is the amalgam of content provided by consumers as well.

The question of whether something is or is not Web 2.0 is ultimately pretty academic. It’s more a general idea than a specific set of features, so don’t let the flashiness blind you.


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10/12/2006 A different drummer
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08/24/2006 A series of tubes
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04/27/2006 Apples to apples
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04/06/2006 Ayyy, jaQ's right!
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