Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Musings on Web 2.0 - 1.0

As with many new developments in web technology, there is an associated frenzy (see previous post on OS) that heralds the new change/website/function as the-next-best-thing which will revolutionise the way we learn. Part of being an e-learning 'practitioner', I'm coming to realise, involves pouring a fair amount of water (preferrably undigested) on these flames of excitement, then focusing on the practical, and not just idealistic, advantages. However, I find myself unable to restrain myself from getting carried away with thinking that Web2.0, and all it promises, really does hold great potential, not just in practical uses (see next posting), but also in the sociological repercussions it will likely create.

The very moniker Web '2.0', seems to imply a qualititative change from what was before - Web 1.0, or Web 1.9 perhaps. Some challenge the name, stating it tells us nothing about this apparently different nature of the web, but as Bryan Alexander writes, the label 'Web 2.0 is far less important than the concepts, projects and practices included in its scope.' This change is well potrayed by Tim O'Reilly (2005) in the table below:

Web 1.0 --> Web 2.0
DoubleClick --> Google AdSense
Ofoto --> Flickr --> Napster
Britannica Online --> Wikipedia
personal websites --> blogging
domain name speculation --> search engine optimization
page views --> cost per click
publishing --> participation
content management systems --> wikis
directories (taxonomy) --> tagging ("folksonomy")

O'Reilly highlights a significant change in web functionality, and suggests that Web 2.0 architects 'have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence'. While this might be said of original internet applications, there is a real sense that Web2.0 functions have taken interactivity, collaboration and web-publishing to the next level. What James Suriowecki calls "the wisdom of crowds" comes into play big-time, and the web's vast array of information becomes to an extent self-organising. The collective attention of millions of people are now able to put value on and contribute information at a rate never experienced before. More importantly, the systems (Wikipedia, Flickr, Delicious, etc) that enable such collective contribution (thus far) do not 'degenerate into multisubjective chaos' (Alexander), but rather improve for *all* users as more and more people get involved. 

With the meteoric rise in popularity of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the similar growth of media-uploading sites such as YouTube, it is worth considering what makes these sites so special, and what is getting people so excited about Web2.0 functions. 
[1] One aspect, as mentioned above, is that these facilities appear to get richer as more people use them. While the volume of data increases, the quality of data also improves, as can be seen with the 'tagging' aspect of or the review system on Amazon. 
[2] Another feature is that there is a real feeling that participants have some sort of sway in how these applications develop. As O'Reilly puts it, these applications 'learn from their users, using an architecture of participation to build a commanding advantage not just in the software interface, but in the richness of the shared data.' 
[3] Thirdly, and significantly I believe, there is an inherent sense of *trust* amongst users. Eric Raymond's adage on Open Source, 'with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow', seems to hold true for a number of Web2.0-like systems. Notably Ebay, which relies almost entirely on its users being trustworthy, and Wikis, could not exist without this inherent trust in its users. (However, I noticed today that the wiki on Wikis is now locked due to 'vandalism'. Could this be the beginning of a slippery slope?)
[4] And finally, a purely subjective observation, but which I think partly accounts for the rising popularity of all these tools, is that they are *fun*. There can be a real sense of play involved in such a rich array of interactions. The huge interest in social networking sites for pleasure and even business supports this. Online interactivity is undoubtedly stimulating (though I could be biased here!).

My hunch is, and I think it is reflected by the growth of media attention given to various Web2.0 phenomena (such as YouTube), that society is likely to be significantly affected by Web2.0 potentials. Web 1.0 already made a huge leap in the accessibility of information. Web 2.0 will allow for a much greater quality, or richness, of that information, as this shared global intelligence is fostered. And this will in turn affect the way businesses operate, the way democracy might work, the way people form relationships ('15% of couples getting together last year met over the internet' - The Times) and the way we are educated. 

On the other hand, perhaps Web 2.0 is just another next-best-thing flash-in-the-pan that needs a healthy dose of you-know-what to quell unwarranted excitement...

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