30 Jul

The Foundation: Web 2.0’s Central Concepts Made Simple

To begin with, what is Web 2.0? As I said before, I’m almost three years late in answering this question. It was pretty thoroughly answered by a guy named Tim O’Reilly who wrote an essay called – wait for it – “What is Web 2.0?” but since it’s a long article and Google is making us all stupider, I’ll go over the highlights.

As I understand it, Web 2.0 is essentially about two things: 1) the collective, and 2) data management.

First, the collective.

As O’Reilly states in his article, “hyperlinking is the foundation of the web.” When you add a new site to the web, it becomes bound to the whole net by people linking to and from it. This linking happens naturally and organically as people navigate through links. Of course, hyperlinking isn’t new. But what we’ve come to learn after a decade of widespread internet use is that the link structure gives us the best indication of the best content. Google, which is one of the most prominent harbingers of the Web 2.0 revolution, utilizes the “link structure” of the web to return results. That is, Google has programs that can read page “importance” through its PageRank technology.

Other sites have followed suit. Digg allows people to read articles that others have “dugg” or deemed worth reading. Sites like del.icio.us do the same with bookmarking web pages and articles. Various image bookmarking sites (like FFFFound and we heart it) operate along the same philosophy, which is that other users of the web can indeed tell you what’s worth investigating.

And that’s the core philosophy of Web 2.0: to rely on the collective, to trust the mob of people out there. Use their linking and navigation and knowledge to deliver better content.

Wikipedia has been the most blatant experiment in mob trust with its anyone-can-edit-it approach, but they’re not the only ones. Amazon also uses mob trust quite a bit. They allow their customers to post reviews of books (and other products), and they also provide “personalized recommendations” and that “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section.

Further down their pages, you can also find a section labeled, “Suggested Tags for Similar Products.” Tags are very Web 2.0 as well. And O’Reilly points to Flickr as the exemplar of tagging and “folksonomy.” Folksonomy, as opposed to taxonomy, is a method of categorization that relies on – guess who? “” the users.

The message here is one of decentralization. Let the people organize things. Let them add new information. Hell, let them even develop and modify the products and services offered. This approach stands in contrast to the approach of the 90s, which was about “publishing, not participation . . . advertisers, not consumers.” But nowadays, it’s the “collective power of small sites” that really determines the web’s content.

A case in point: We Feel Fine. The stark truth about blogs is that there are far more uninteresting ones than there are interesting ones. But We Feel Fine has taken those sites that by themselves might be quite tedious or boring or offensive or inane and pooled them together into something really captivating. The site dubs itself an “exploration of human emotion on a global scale,” and it achieves this exploration by searching “the world’s newly posted blog entries for occurrences of the phrases ‘I feel’ and ‘I am feeling.’ When it finds such a phrase, it records the full sentence, up to the period, and identifies the ‘feeling’ expressed in that sentence (e.g. sad, happy, depressed, etc.).”

It then throws together all these statements of feeling into a colorful, graphic-lovely presentation. Just now, at the We Feel Fine site, I clicked on a little green bubble floating around among hundreds of other multi-colored bubbles on a black background; the following words appeared: “I would feel more blessed if I could find someone I could love.” A blue bubble brings up this: “I feel overwhelmed by them their expectations my desire to include everyone while simultaneously not being the center of attention.” And a pink bubble turns into this bold statement: “I feel like I’ve posted a million shoe deals lately but really can a person have too many pairs of shoes?”

And this brings us to the second Web 2.0 criterion: data. What We Feel Fine does so well is it manages data. And that’s the key to success nowadays. It’s all about data management.

Amazon again provides an instructive example. You probably know that books have something called an ISBN number. (Actually, that’s redundant since the N in ISBN stands for “number,” I think.) You can find this number on any book right above or below the bar code on the back. A company called R.R. Bowker maintains the ISBN registry. But Amazon supplements the data they get from Bowker by adding “publisher-supplied data such as cover images, tables of contents, indexes, and sample material.” So just as We Feel Fine’s data is enhanced through presentations and aggregation, so too is Amazon’s data enhanced through added content/information.

Google Maps has done similar things with its map data. But it has gone a step further toward 2.0-ness by allowing users to annotate maps or to create “mashups,” which are simply seamless combinations of two websites. An example would be the gmaps pedometer site I use after jogging to see how far I ran. Or there’s O’Reilly’s better example of housingmaps.com which combines Google Maps and craigslist to display rentals and properties for sale in select cities throughout the nation.

Flickr also has tons of mashups, like retrievr and colr pickr which use Flickr images to bring back colorful new displays.

In all of the above mashups, the data is interactive, not controlled by a single entity. This is in keeping with the decentralization theme of Web 2.0. You want your Web 2.0 sites to be hackable and mixable so that users can improve upon your content and/or add to it. And you also want to rely on syndication rather than coordination/control.

What’s syndication? Well, that brings us to blogs. As we all know, the word blog comes from “web-log,” and a blog is basically an online diary or journal. Except that it’s not at all private. Blogs have really been around since the beginning of the Internet in the form of personal home pages. But nowadays, the technology is a little different.

Nowadays, the technology uses a database to manage all entries or posts on the blog. It can organize the posts by category, date, author, tags, and a slew of other criteria. But modern-day blogs also do a much better job of connecting to that hyperlinked foundation of the web we were talking about earlier. They do this through three things, really. First is permalinks. A blog displays the most recent posts on its page, but each post has a permalink, which allows anyone to link directly to the post rather than to the page it initially appeared on. Second is trackbacks. When someone links to your post or your blog, you, as the author, will be notified of where that link is coming from. Trackbacks and permalinks allow for a sort of community amongst bloggers, a community which has a name actually: the blogosphere. But the blogosphere is really powered by a third component, namely RSS. In O’Reilly’s words: “RSS allows someone to link not just to a page but to subscribe to it with notifications every time that page changes.” Some call this the “live web.”

With their tri-tied connection to the web, blogs are an improved structure for the “conversation,” the buzz that’s updated immediately and frequently and which delivers the wisdom of crowds.

So there you have it. Web 2.0. In a nutshell, it’s about managing data that comes from the collective. Of course, it’s also pretty. In fact, go ahead and add that to the list, even though O’Reilly doesn’t. Web 2.0 is quick and pretty. The 2.0 ethic claims that we shouldn’t have to deal with sites that are cluttered with ads. We, the users, get some power and there’s too much information out there for us to tolerate being annoyed. So no pop-ups. No flashing banners preferably. No paid subscriptions. We want a simple layout with pretty icons (think Apple) that are shiny and feature reflections, gradients and subtle shadowing. There are even tutorials on how to create such pretties. Here’s mine:

wiscostorm 2.0

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