Web 2.0: Let go, share, build upon others, free your data

Ten years after the birth of the World Wide Web, people are talking about its next generation: Web 2.0. Especially in the IA community, the buzz of Web 2.0 has resulted in an intense global discussion about its meaning, possibilities and (business and social) impact.

What is Web 2.0?

There are at least a dozen definitions of Web 2.0. The most extensive is that of Wikipedia. The ones I favour most are:

“Web 1.0 was about creating a web site with designer-supplied content, navigation, and HTML functionality. Web 2.0 is a new way to think about the web, where content moves beyond sites, interaction is no longer just straight HTML, and users control how data is categorized and manipulated.”

Jared Spool

“The philosophy of Web 2.0 is to let go of control, share ideas and code, build on what others have built, free your data.”

Richard MacManus

There are three elements in these quotes that identify the major aspects of the Web 2.0 vision:

  • content is on the move
  • interaction is changing
  • users are in control

Content is on the move

In the first years of the WWW, the web was clear to everyone: News was on CNN.com, books on Amazon, email at Hotmail and many companies that created their own virtual brochure. Web content was mostly static and was carefully published by designers. Users just consumed the information. And there was no way of knowing when information was updated, other than visiting the site frequently.

Nowadays, content has become very dynamic: we no longer think in terms of ‘documents’, but in ‘information chunks’, The website of the content owner is no longer the main publication channel. Web content storage and distribution have long been the exclusive domain of the website, but have now become two separate channels. Tom Curley (CEO of Associated Press) stated in his keynote at the Online News Association Conference (Nov. 2004) that “content will be more important than its container in this next phase. That’s a big shift for old media to come to grips with. Killer apps, such as search, RSS and video-capture software such as Tivo — to name just a few — have begun to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in. Who needs to bookmark and surf a bunch of Web sites anymore, when you can search or monitor several RSS ‘feeds’ much more efficiently?”.

Because the amount of available information (sources) has been multiplied by huge factors, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of all (relevant) information updates. New standards and protocols like XML, RSS and web services have introduced automatic content syndication. Feed readers, whether web-based or OS-based, aggregate multiple news feeds and provide easy scanning possibilities to information-eager users. I myself scan feeds in Desktop Sidebar while typing this article and it’s costing me hardly any time. It’s a great way of staying up-to-date without affecting your productivity.

Interaction is changing

In Web 1.0, interaction was often either limited to DHTML / Flash gadgets or was constantly interrupted by server roundtrips. Web 2.0 interaction is meaningful and smooth: it is a direct two-way communication between user-user, user-server and/or server-server.

Technologies like web services, SOAP and AJAX have greatly improved the richness of interaction, or in general: the user experience of web applications. Because the web and the desktop are more and more morphing towards each other, it doesn’t matter a great deal whether you develop a web application or a desktop application, or both, as long as your data is online. Why not combine the strengths of both approaches? The vision “always on, always connected” is getting nearer every day.

Users are in control

When you acknowledge the fact that sites themselves become less important than its content and that technologies like search engines (Google!) and RSS are taking over, it becomes clear that users are becoming more in control. After all, they are the ones entering their search queries, they are the ones subscribing to RSS feeds, so they are the ones deciding through which channel they want their content to be presented to them.

Users, especially the boys and girls of the ‘net generation’, don’t just consume information. They chat, they blog, they interact, they build social networks. They remix existing and create new content. Creating value by remixing concepts is not just a web thing and it certainly isn’t new. People remix music (e.g. Thicke’s “When I Get You Alone”, which is a remix of Beethovens famous symphony), media (e.g. Bush & Blair love duet), fashion, publishing and software. Information or knowledge workers remix as well: they search information and use it to create new content.

Organizations who value their content over its container (the website / software) focus on the branding and selling of the content. Third parties can use and remix that content to something that better suits their (or their users) needs. Software developers have already grown somewhat accustomed to this; they re-use each others components to create their own product. Sharing content or whole services is something many people are not quite used to yet.

Some designers have (always had) the urge to remain in full control, to keep users as long as possible at their website. Why would you want users to leave? All kinds of tactics were and are being used to stick with the user: popups, in-frames, obstruct users in leaving their site. In his article “How I learned to stop worrying and relinquish control”, Peter Merholz of Adaptive Path advises web designers to let go of their presumed control. In the light of Web 2.0, organizations that have put the user in control, have proven to be successful. And users care more about the content than about the packaging.

Success stories

The list of successful Web 2.0 practitioners feature illustrious names like Amazon, Flickr, Google and Ebay. Less familiar to the masses, but swiftly gaining ground are del.icio.us and LinkedIn.

Google really doesn’t care about how much time users will spend on their site. In fact, thanks to the “I feel lucky” button, users can successfully use Google in a single page view. As Peter Merholz puts it: “[Google’s] value wasn’t in page views — it was in becoming an indispensable tool”. And since Google sells its Application Programming Interface (API), others are free to remix the tool.

Amazon and eBay are great examples of services where users provide fundamental content. With Amazon it’s user reviews, while eBay gives users the opportunity to not only sell and buy their stuff, but also to rate other individuals (reliability credits).

And then there are the social networks, like Flickr (sharing photo’s), LinkedIn (professional network) and del.icio.us (social bookmarks manager). The principles of these sites are alike: users provide content, cross-links and tags to identify and classify that content, and the site uses the users’ cross-links and tags as a navigational scheme. People build the information architecture instead of designers. It’s a revolutionary concept, called folksonomy, and it seems to work.

Conclusion

The Web is changing. Users no longer just consume, they share information and build social networks. The amount of content is multiplying rapidly, so users and designers are looking for ways to keep up with this information overload. One of the currently popular solutions is RSS. By subscribing to a newsfeed, you no longer have to bookmark sites and check them regularly. The content itself will find you.

Websites are becoming less important than the content they contain. In this perspective, designers must stop trying to keep users as long at their site as possible; instead they should focus on content and put the user in control of the web experience.

Does all this mean websites will become useless? That we shouldn’t put anymore effort in designing sites, making them usable, accessible and attractive? Well, I think we should make a distinction in user tasks. For information retrieval, search and content syndication will take over a great deal of the process. But once you find something, it’s usability will always be important. And when you shop online, the visual design and the usability of the webshop will still influence your user experience, your trust and your satisfaction.

Interesting read