Web 2.0 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Web 2.0

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In the Spring of 2004, a conference brainstorming session was conducted between representatives from O'Reilly Media and MediaLive International. The purpose of the meeting was to examine what kind of web companies had survived the dot com crash of 2000, what features they possessed and if there were any common core principles shared by them which enabled them to survive. In order to differentiate these companies from those that visibly failed when the bubble burst, the participants in the session started using the phrase 'Web 2.0' to describe them.

Why Web 2.0?

Firstly, some definitions. You are not reading this page on the Internet. You are reading it on the World Wide Web. The Internet is the cables and routers that tie the whole caboodle together, and all the software and technologies that can use this system. The World Wide Web is one of those technologies, a specific implementation of the Internet concept, in which individuals can post pages of information for the general edification of the rest of humanity. Or rather, that was Web 1.0 - the great and good who know how to create web pages disseminating information to those that can't. It's a top-down system, and that is what failed when the dot com bubble burst.

Web 2.0, in the most basic sense, is less top-down, and more sideways. No longer is the average Internet user the recipient of the wisdom of the few super-users, but rather every Internet user can add to the collective wisdom of humanity, argue against the supposed wisdom of the super-users, or edit the super-users out of the picture entirely. It's more about collaboration than information.

What is Web 2.0?

One of the participants in that original brainstorming session, Tim O'Reilly, has sought to define what was meant by the term 'Web 2.0' when he used it back then. In summary, he lists several features that would identify a Web 2.0 company. Not that all Web 2.0 companies will have all of these features, but the majority should be evident.

Services, not Packaged Software, with Cost-effective Scalability

There is no point re-creating on the web the programs that people have on their own computers. The functionality of those programs can be so vast, and the connection to the web be can so patchy (particularly if you are still on dial-up!) that trying to make the one work on the other is a recipe for disaster. Even producing a cut-down version of a desktop program could be a hit-or-miss affair. If people could use a stronger, faster, or reliable program on their own machine, why would they use yours on the web1? The key is to provide something that people can't, or generally don't know how to, do on their own machines. Like a way to display their photos or home videos on the web, to review and rate a product from your company's range, or to provide a way for them to share their thoughts with the world. Or maybe to offer them the opportunity to be part of something greater, like contributing to the Earth Edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

Control over Unique, Hard-to-Recreate Data Sources that get Richer as more People use Them

You, the average user, can add your own content to a Web 2.0 site2. In the Web 1.0 world, the creator of a website told you what they thought on a particular subject, and that was the end of the matter. On a Web 2.0 site anyone can create a page on any subject and everyone can see it. The more subjects that are written about, and the more people write about them, the more diverse the website becomes, and the greater resource it is. Does the example of h2g2 need to be pointed out? The Guide is a completely unique and hard-to-recreate data source. To recreate that range of subjects written in the distinctive style of that range of people, would surely be impossible. The more Guide Entries are written, the greater it becomes.

Trusting Users as Co-developers

On a Web 1.0 site, the site design and content is what the designer say it is, and it changes when and how the designer decrees - if at all. A Web 2.0 site allows its users to suggest changes and possibly even make limited changes themselves - such as adding new skins, for example. When changes are rolled out, users can give feedback on how they are working, and whether tweaks can be made. This is also known as the 'perpetual beta' - the site developers are constantly feeding new features for the users to chew on. In h2g2 you can create Entries at will - on any subject you like - as long as it doesn't break the House Rules. You can help to develop the Edited Guide as well, by submitting Entries to Peer Review.

Harnessing Collective Intelligence

A Web 1.0 site would be written from the perspective of the creator, and that was it. Nobody else would get a look in. No other opinions, be they in favour or against, would be allowed. Often there would no facility to reply to the author. In a Web 2.0 system, everyone has a say. The belief is that if enough people have a voice, then eventually the truth must emerge. On some sites this is practised through documents being open to editing by all users. On h2g2 this happens more in the form of Peer Review of Entries with users proposing changes to other Researchers' efforts.

Leveraging the Long Tail Through Customer Self-service

The core of any given system is a small number is highly used features. The tail of that same system the large number of lightly used features. If the tail of a system particularly long then the total worth of the tail may equal, or even exceed, the total worth of the core. A Web 2.0 site would make use of that long tail in order to add overall value to their system. In h2g2 terms, the core of the Guide would be a few Entries of general interest - like The Solar System and The United Kingdom. The tail would contain Entries like C+S Saloon, Brockport, New York, USA or East Lothian from the Edinburgh - North Berwick Railway Line which would be of interest to far less people. If you are looking for somewhere to drink in Brockport, or travelling through North Berwick, then you would be glad that the Guide has a long tail. They may be niche Entries, but if it's your niche, then it's more important to you than Entries of a more general interest. If your niche doesn't exist on a Web 2.0 site (or h2g2) yet, then you can create it!

Software Above the Level of a Single Device

So, your web page can be accessed through a PC web browser can it? That's nice. Can it be accessed through a PDA? Or, heaven forefend, a humble mobile phone? A Web 2.0 site should be accessible through any device the user chooses. Given the different ways that these devices work, this would involve creating different versions of your site for each device, but they should all be able to access the same data and facilities. h2g2 slightly falls down on this one. There is a mobile site, but you can only access the Edited Guide through it, not the rest of the site, and you can't write an Entry through that portal either.

Lightweight User Interfaces, Development Models, and Business Models

Overall, Web 2.0 sites must be easy to use. After all, nobody will visit your site if it isn't. The software behind the website should be fairly flexible too, so that new features can be developed, and old features regularly revised. The company should also be able to spin on the spot, and completely change focus at a moment's notice. One Web 1.0 company that got this horribly wrong, and so arguably kicked off the bursting of the dot com bubble, was Boo.com.

What Else is Web 2.0?

Though the descriptions in this Entry mainly use h2g2 as an example, there are various other ways in which Web 2.0 technology is used. Video and picture sites, where users can upload their own media, have hard-to-recreate data, an incredibly long tail, and presents a service, effectively an online gallery with a worldwide audience, that most users would not be able to create independently.

Online retail sites, though possibly Web 1.0 at heart, can have Web 2.0 features, like allowing users to review and rate products (the hard-to-recreate data), or presenting users with recommendations based on their previous purchases, and what other users are buying and rating (making use of that long tail).

Social networking sites provide a service that would otherwise have you on the phone to your friends almost constantly, or which would only happen when you sent your yearly round robin letter. You could blog, upload photos and videos, and see what your friends are doing too. They can also allow users to add their own page skins, and be made available to other users.

What Isn't Web 2.0?

Not everything that claims to be, in a nutshell. It's become a business buzzword, which supposedly looks good on business plans, whether it bears any relation to the business or not. Lots of sites and business claim to be Web 2.0 in the belief that it is new and clever and cutting edge, however, in the original usage it did not mean that. Those companies that were identified as Web 2.0 are those web companies that survived and thrived through the 2000 stock market crash. The first Web 2.0 companies existed at the same time as the Web 1.0 companies that failed. It remains to be seen what manner of companies are really Web 3.0, and will survive when Web 2.0 fails.

1Unless your version has some interesting features, like multiple concurrent editing and online storage, that is.2Provided that content doesn't break the site's house rules, of course.

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