FAQ: Web 2.0 basics

An overview, with glimpses of Web 1.0 and Web 3.0 to boot

Web 2.0 is a big topic. We've pinpointed four cardinal aspects of Web 2.0 -- collaboration , gatheringpublishing and multimedia -- and we've got FAQs covering the basics of each. For an overview of Web 2.0 concepts and tenets, however, you're in the right place.  

Web 2.0? Which standards body came up with that, anyway?
No standards body was harmed in the designation of Web 2.0 -- it's a phrase O'Reilly Media Inc. coined in 2004 to describe how people and the applications they built were starting to use the Internet as a platform for collaboration.

In 2003, CMP Media LLC and O'Reilly filed for U.S. Patent and Trademark Office registration for use of the term Web 2.0 for live events. They later sent a stiffly worded letter to an Irish nonprofit conference organizer in connection with the use of the term, an event that caused much heated discussion in comments on O'Reilly's Web site.

What are the hallmarks of Web 2.0? How is it different from the regular Web?

Web 1.0 was the initial great rush to populate the Web with pages of information connected by hypertext links. In the later years of the period, many of those pages were driven by databases behind the scenes, but the average person couldn't see much difference.

As high-bandwidth, always-on access became more widely available and Internet usage increased, some sites developed ways of utilizing data from that usage. Some of that data was gathered by the systems themselves, such as Amazon.com Inc.'s "also purchased" feature ("Customers who bought this item also bought..."). A great deal was contributed directly by users, generally in the form of short reviews, comments or suggestions. Though relatively few users participated heavily in such collaboration, the ability to collaborate encouraged the development of a remarkable "group wisdom" on such sites.

Over time, collaboration moved to the heart of the Web 2.0 experience. Sites such as those of Craigslist Inc., eBay Inc. and MySpace.com Inc. provide three very different experiences, but all are entirely predicated on user contributions and interactions between those users.

Meanwhile, community-centric sites such as Slashdot and Digg relied on readers to contribute links (usually to news stories) that might be of interest to the community, to describe and comment on the contributions, and to moderate (and thus provide first-line filtering of) other users' comments. This gathering function has become a de facto answer to Web 1.0's information-dispensing model -- rather than consuming the news as presented under a single brand (such as USA Today or The New York Times), those using a Web 2.0 news-gathering model tend to check community-driven aggregation sites for pointers to specific stories on the news sites. A few news-gathering sites dispense with the human element altogether, relying on robots to parse and numerically weighting the importance of news stories as they happen.

Information hasn't just been gathered differently as Web 2.0 has developed. Publishing tools such as blogging sites have made it extraordinarily easy for anyone with a Net connection to make his writings available online. (Or other peoples' writings; intellectual-property concerns have become central to discussions about Web 2.0.) And improvements in gadgetry and end-user software have made multimedia a practical medium for millions of filmmakers, musicians, talk-show hosts and so forth -- with even greater pushback from some sectors of the entertainment industry establishment.

What's the four-plus-one hierarchy of Web 2.0-ishness?

Tim O'Reilly set forth those levels in a September 2006 essay. They are:

• Level 0 applications are those that could just as easily function offline. Snipshot, a photo-editing site, could have an offline twin with all the same features; the main advantage to it being online is that it can be used from any Internet-connected computer and requires no application download. Mapping sites such as Google Maps are also Level 0 -- until someone decides to create a "mashup." More on that in a second.

• Level 1 apps could and do exist offline, but they gain a notable benefit by living on the Web. Collaborative document-editing apps such as Google Docs are Level 1; you can use them as online Word/Excel substitutes and never touch the collaborative capabilities. On the other hand, the collaborative capabilities add significant benefit. Which leads us to…

• Level 2 apps still could and do exist offline, but gain so much from being online and collaborative that you can't quite imagine using them any other way. O'Reilly cites Flickr as the echt-Level 2 app. You could use it simply to store photos online, but you're critically limiting yourself by not tagging your words or participating in the user community. 
Moreover, treating Flickr as just a storage shed may lead to an unpleasant surprise if you're not aware that by default, photos uploaded to Flickr are public. You can switch the rights on your images to keep them from public scrutiny, but the shift in public/private sensibility is one of the signals of a Web 2.0 application or site.

We mentioned Google Maps above. A map is something that we know perfectly well how to use offline. But the mashup phenomenon, which allows third parties to meld outside data with a base (for example, location-delineated crime stats atop Google Maps for a block-by-block view of trouble spots in a city), kicks up to Level 2 or even Level 3.

• Level 3 applications, the "highest" level, could only exist on the Net and can only thrive with great amounts of user participation. Familiar examples include Wikipedia, Digg and Craigslist.

And the "plus one?" Tech that doesn't need the Web at all, such as e-mail, instant messaging or the telephone.

O'Reilly himself wavers as to whether Amazon.com's vast user-review component makes it Level 2 or Level 3, whether iTunes is Level 1 or Level 2, and so on. Leveling is thus a fun mental game for Web 2.0 observers. A Level 0 game.

It sounds like much of this stuff has been happening for quite a while. Isn't this just a marketing moniker, selling us another dot-com bubble?

No denying there's a lot of hype in the water, but that doesn't mean it's just another new flavor of Kool-Aid.

Since Web 2.0 is neither a standard nor a specific technology, marketing types have clasped it to their collective bosom as a synonym for, "We've redesigned this page since 1998, honest." As with obscenity, Web 2.0 is sometimes just something you recognize when you see it.

But using the four-plus-one model, we can easily spot a few Web 2.0 faux phenomena. For instance, many news sites (including this one) have embraced both blogging and user comments on stories. That's great, but at best those are Level 1 overlays to Level 0-style content, since much of the site is still simply an electronic version of its offline equivalent.

Why must I bother? Who cares about collaboration? I'm just trying to run a business here.

Businesses generally require customers to thrive. Even though your customers may not be clamoring for chat rooms from the factory floor or a blog from your CEO, Web 2.0 is raising expectations for information availability and flexibility.

Your customer base is changing, too. Just as the age group who remembered an era before FedEx (overnight shipping) and faxing (instant document delivery) gave way to a group that regards e-mail as a core business tool, a growing percentage of your customer base has grown up with instant messaging (ultrafast informal communication), blogs (unmediated individual online presence and response), messaging from camera-enabled mobile phones (location-independent access and multimedia) and Froogle (vendor-independent shopping).

It's not just your customers. Businesses are now contending with those expectations in the workforce. Many people under 25 learned to smirk when members of their generation were told "what's allowed" online, thanks to years of inept lecturing about peer-to-peer music downloading, not to mention parents and teachers who threw up their hands at the "complexity" of the Internet. Now, they're coming into the office. Tell them they can't install an instant messaging client on their workstation, and they may just fire up Meebo.com in a browser window or switch to texting from their mobile phones. Such workers could also refuse to consider candidates who maintain their own MySpace pages or LiveJournal blogs, and you drain the applicant pool considerably.

Is there a Web 3.0?

One's on the way. It's a topic for a different FAQ, certainly. But discussion of the Web's 3.0 iteration has centered on back-end issues such as separating presentation technology and the data, developing and using the so-called semantic Web, and artificial intelligence.

The prospect of separating information from the way it's viewed extends well past making sure that one's Web site is viewable in both Firefox and Internet Explorer -- or even in both a computer monitor and a phone screen. As designers know too well, playing catch-up to browsers and devices is a recipe for distraction and frustration. One of the challenges of Web 3.0 will be to come to terms with the ever-expanding universe of devices that seek information from the Internet. Rather than building pages or templates and pondering how to make those behave on whatever devices are around then, those wrestling with Web 3.0 will find themselves working through the ultimate decoupling of the logic, data and presentation of online information.

The long-awaited semantic Web, which is actually an expansion of our current Web, aims to make tools as smart about understanding specific information on Web pages as they currently are about knowing what to do when a human clicks on a link. That'll be accomplished by developing a system of machine-readable tags that will differentiate between newer data and older data, between price lists and wish lists, and so forth.

With a robust semantic Web, for instance, one might have an application (an "agent") that can understand not only how to search for information on bobbins, but also how to parse the information to see that per-bobbin prices have dropped by 10% in Southeast Asia this week -- 7% in the past 24 hours alone. If you're a person who cares about your bobbins, you'd probably have your agent configured to alert you that there's a situation in progress. A good agent might even be able to connect the dots between the bobbin crisis and an editorial in yesterday's Bangkok Post advocating a bobbin embargo, or the release of a revolutionary Bobbin 2.0 that'll make all current bobbins obsolete.

Find out more about Web 2.0 Security:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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