We are the Web: An Overview of Web 2.0

(Originally published April 28, 2006 at www.nsls.info)

The 1985 USA for Africa collaboration, “We are the World” brought musicians together from various genres to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. Twenty plus years later, the model for delivering the message, not to mention the song and video, is significantly transformed. Let’s visualize how the experience and deliverables of “We are the Web” would differ from “We are the World.”

Today, for a group of artists collaborating on such a project, distance is no longer a limiting factor. Collaboration through wires is now the most prevalent method of working and communicating with people. Entertainment media (music and video) is distributed in electronic format for downloading. Archived streaming media documentaries and live streaming telecasts show the need to help, providing opportunities to volunteer online, make donations, discuss work in the field, and organize political action groups. The artists host online chat sessions and maintain blogs chronicling their work and passion (and also promoting their own ventures). Libraries help patrons find resources and sponsor programs to educate the public on the issues. Students get involved through social networking and organize benefits at the local level. To raise additional funds, products are sold online. A constant stream of photos and descriptions, illustrating the progress (or lack thereof), reach our social networks. We react, respond, and reconnect instantaneously using music, video, pictures, comments, and commerce.

National Response to Hurricane Katrina Used Web 2.0 as a Primary Vehicle

This scenario is eerily familiar. The national response to Hurricane Katrina used Web 2.0 as a primary vehicle for mobilization of effort and sharing information on the Internet. Specific examples illustrate this model in practice:

What is Web 2.0?

There are numerous definitions, explanations, and articles attempting to neatly describe Web 2.0. In reality, it is an evolving concept, central to all definitions is the increasingly important role of the user in defining the web. Indeed, We are the Web.

The seminal article on defining Web 2.0 comes from Tim O’Reilly (September 30, 2005), “What is Web 2.0 – Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software.” I highly recommend this article to outline the components and scope of Web 2.0. Tim O’Reilly provides principles of Web 2.0, augmented with examples and lessons learned. We will review these basic principles and find parallels in library usage. (Note: Library applications that use Web 2.0 principles are referred to as “Library 2.0”)

Principles of Web 2.0

The Web as Platform

The debate isn’t about which program or computer operating system to use anymore. Instead, the web serves as the delivery and access platform for information that can be compiled across multiple suppliers. By promoting interoperability and opening up resources through APIs (application program interface), the web as platform model extends the use of the service and thereby enhances the viability of the company. Google Maps is a good example of this principle in practice. By allowing anyone to connect to their mapping data, they extend the reach of the information. Dependence on data determines success of an information service, not how long someone stays on your website.

Harnessing Collective Intelligence

Many of the leading Web properties adopted this principle long before it was identified in Web 2.0 context. Think of some of the services you use. Do they provide a growing body of knowledge which gets richer over time? Amazon reviews, eBay feedback, wikipedia articles, blog entries and RSS feeds represent some of the common resources that have been built and expanded through user participation. The Architecture of Participation recognizes that users add value and aggregating user data enriches the experience for all.

Data is the Next Intel Inside

Content is still king. However, context is queen. Web 2.0 leverages the power of context. Accessing data from a supplier and presenting that data within a specific context makes the information more meaningful. For example, when I’m searching my library catalog for a book I’m interested in, I may find that it is already checked out. If my catalog could interface with a service like Amazon, it could suggest something like “Customers who read this also read…” By checking circulation status of an item, only the available items might be shown. Pulling data from various sources to build a personal context maximizes the value of data collection. Collect it and share it. But to maintain a competitive advantage, “seek to own a unique, hard-to-recreate source of data” (O’Reilly, p13).

Data is anything digital in Web 2.0. Text, music, podcasts, video clips, images, photographs, simulation, and documents in various formats all have a role in the development of rich content.

End of the Software Release Cycle

The “perpetual beta” has become the norm for most dynamic services. Since Web 2.0 models rely on users to build the collective intelligence and steer feature-set development, they must be part of the development team. Web 2.0 relies on services, not on packaged products. Given this characteristic, Web 2.0 can involve the user as part of the team, allowing users to experience/evaluate enhancements as they occur instead of packaged as a major revision. Development is nimble; good ideas can be rapidly released.

Lightweight Programming Models

Highly-structured, formal data interoperability standards are not the preferred method of communicating across systems in Web 2.0. Error checking, validity testing, and verification processes require extensive programming overhead. Instead of building programs to withstand any type of data anomaly in the process, lightweight programming models are loosely coupled. They may actually break if bad data is sent to them. But so what? Don’t send bad data to them and you don’t need to worry about handling the bad data. In other words, Web 2.0 services allow you to access their data and provide rules for how to request their data. If you don’t follow the rules, you just won’t get what you expected. This lightweight programming model puts responsibility on the requestor of information to make a valid request. The programming models encourage re-use and innovation.

Software Above the Level of a Single Device

The devices we use to access content are not restricted to our PCs. Web 2.0 services work across the growing continuum. Digital audio and video players, cell phones, and car navigation systems are some of the more prevalent alternative devices. Web 2.0 services deliver data appropriately configured for the requesting device.

Rich User Experiences

Through combining several existing technologies, in new and innovative ways, the user experience of a web application is more interactive. The experience more closely simulates a PC-based application. The old model of “fill in a form,” “submit,” “wait for next prompt” has been replaced with controls which trigger behavior based on action. These actions are executed without returning to the server for the next series of events. Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) is the key group of technologies used to provide this rich environment. Start to recognize the behavior of web applications and how they immediately respond to your selection of a control, such as a radio button or checkbox. In the past, Web applications required that you submit any selections which would send your selections back to the main server to be analyzed. With Ajax, this analysis is conducted instantaneously using embedded data that was sent, but hidden from view until needed.

Core Themes and Challenges

Stating that the user is instrumental in Web 2.0 seems obvious and easy. But, implementing that key principle requires adoption of behaviors and ideals that might be difficult. We need to trust users as co-developers. That sounds good. In reality, that means we need to trust them to participate as creators and editors of content that will be accessible from our websites. Do we allow patrons to freely add comments about a book directly into our catalog? Library 2.0 advocates would say, “absolutely, the sooner the better!” Do we open up our community networks to enable users to post information about local businesses and services?

The power of users as co-developers comes from harnessing collective intelligence. Again, this sounds great and laudable. But, do we really know how to work with others to support growth of collective intelligence? Have we adopted behaviors that will add to the collective? Communities of Practice (CoPs) are an example of collective intelligence; how many of us have contributed the knowledge and ideas we have on one of the CoPs, thereby extending the collective intelligence? I have to admit, I am far more a consumer of collective intelligence than a contributor. How do we help ourselves and others become consistent contributors in the collective intelligence base?

Trust is hard in practice; so is thoughtful and accurate sharing of information. Sometimes you have to try things that may seem downright crazy to judge true effectiveness. Trust is the leap of faith required to truly implement Web 2.0. Change in behavior—adopting new work and communication habits—is necessary to channel collective intelligence. If the experts aren’t contributing, our collective intelligence falls way short of its potential.

Conclusion

I’m not sure why so many tunes are swirling around my head as I try to describe the core of Web 2.0. Maybe it is because music and audio represent an increasingly important information stream in this web transformation. Or, maybe it is because in living with a teenage daughter, music, multi-tasking, picture-taking, instant messaging, social-networking, and cell-phones are the buzz of normal life. Blogs, podcasts, social networking, online discussions, newsfeeds, freeform tags, folksonomies, Web conferencing…. As Billy Joel might say “Everybody’s talking ‘bout the new sound – Funny, but it’s still Rock & Roll to me!”

I guess it doesn’t matter what we call this new Web or if we can even agree on a definition—it’s all Web 2.0 to me. And, I think it comes naturally to my daughter and her contemporaries.

Resources

O’Reilly, Tim. “What Is Web 2.0 – Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software.” O’Reilly Network: What is Web 2.0. 30 Sept 2005. O’Reilly Publishing. 09 Apr. 2006.

Graham, Paul. “Web 2.0.” Paul Graham . Nov. 2005. 09 Apr. 2006.

Rogers, Dave. “Web 2.0: Mistaking the Forest for the Trees?” gotomedia: news & events: gotoreport january 2006. Jan. 2006. gotomedia. 09 Apr. 2006.

Web 2.0.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 8 April 2006. Wikipedia. 09 Apr. 2006.

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