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What's in a 2.0?

"The Web with rounded corners," some of my skeptical friends call it. One reason for going to Emerging Technology was to find out what Web 2.0 was supposed to be when it's at home in OReillyland and whether there's a there, there.

It's really surprising how much "Web 2.0" is talked about and taken for granted as a present, dominant trend in Silicon Valley (OK, etech was in San Diego, but its prevailing ethos lives about 550 miles north of there). In London, you can go to a year's worth of Net-related gatherings without ever hearing the term, and it doesn't seem to be even a minor theme in the technology news generally, even in the 49 states.

The cynical would conclude it's a Silicon Valley term, perhaps designed to attract funding from the local venture capitalists, who respond to buzzwords.

Not at all, said the guys sharing my taxi to the airport. For one thing, you can make assumptions now that you couldn't in "Web 1.0". For example: people know what a browser is; they use email; they know if they see a link that they can click on it and be taken to further information.

To me, this sounds less like a change in the Web and more like simple user education. People can drive cars now, too, where our caveman ancestors couldn't. Yet we don't call ourselves Homo Sapiens 2.0 or claim that we're a different species.

There also seems to be some disagreement about whether it's really right to call it Web 2.0. After all, it isn't like software where you roll out discrete versions with new product launches, or like, say, new versions of Windows, where you usually have to buy a new computer in order to cope with the demands of the new software. (The kids of the 1990s have learned a strange way to count, too: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 95, 97…)

Instead, Web 2.0, like folk music, seems to be a state of mind: it is what you point to when you say it. But if you figure that Web 1.0 was more or less passive point-and-click and Web 3.0 is the "semantic Web" Tim Berners-Lee has been talking about for years in which machines will take intelligently to other machines and humans will reap the benefits, then Web 2.0 is, logically, all that interactive stuff. Social networking, Twitter, interactive communities that leverage their members' experience and data to create new information and services.

Some examples. Wesabe, in which members pool their anonymized financial data, out of which the service produces analyses showing things consumers couldn't easily know before, such as which banks or credit cards typically cost the most. The Sunlight Foundation mines public resources to give US citizens a clearer picture of what their elected representatives are actually doing. The many social networks – Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut, and so on – of course. And all those mashup things other people seem to have time to do – maps, earths, and other data.

The thing is, TheyWorkForYou has been mining the UK's public data in one form or another since 1998, when some of the same people first set up UpMyStreet. OK, it doesn't have a blog. Does that make it significantly less, you know, modern?

None of this is to say that there isn't genuinely a trend here, or that what's coming out of it isn't useful. Mashups are fun, we know this. And obviously there is real value in mining data or folks like the credit card companies, airlines, supermarkets, insurance companies, and credit scorers wouldn't be so anxious to grab all our data that they pay us with discounts and better treatment just to get it. If they can do it, we can – and there's clearly a lot of public data out there that has never been turned into usable information. Why shouldn't consumers be able to score banks and credit card companies the way they score us?

But adding a blog or a discussion forum doesn't seem to me sufficiently novel to claim that it's a brand new Web. What it does show is that if you give humans connectivity, they will keep building the same kinds of things on whatever platform is available. Every online system that I'm aware of, going back to the proprietary days of CompuServe and BIX (and, no doubt, others before them) has had mail, instant messaging, discussion forums, some form of shopping (however rudimentary), and some ability to post personal thoughts in public. Somewhere, there's probably a PhD dissertation in researching the question of what it says about us that we keep building the same things.

The really big changes are permanent storage and all-encompassing search. When there were many proprietary platforms and they were harder to use, the volume was smaller – but search was ineffective unless you knew exactly where to look or if the data had been deleted after 30 days. And you can't interact with data you can't find.

So we're back to cycnicism. If you want to say that "Web 2.0" is a useful umbrella term for attracting venture capital, well, fine. But let's not pretend it's a giant technological revolution.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her , or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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