Listening to the wide-ranging conversations regarding the Web 2.0 meme, I keep coming back to the old Buffalo Springfield lyric in “For What It’s Worth”: “There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
The skeptics like Tim Bray point out that this concept has come to mean anything that the speaker wants it to mean. The champions, most notably Tim O’Reilly, volley back that the rapid spread of the meme indicates that it “does capture the widespread sense that there’s something qualitatively different about today’s web.”
There’s no denying that the meme has taken hold, having been developed only about 18 months ago by Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly Media. Unfortunately, as the Wikipedia entry on Web 2.0 reports, Dale never really defined the term, using examples rather than a definition to communicate its meaning: "DoubleClick was Web 1.0; Google AdSense is Web 2.0. Ofoto is Web 1.0; Flickr is Web 2.0."
Many people since have attempted a definition, most notably Richard MacManus here and here, Martin at the Mediatope blog, Jay Cross and Dion Hinchcliffe. Tim O’Reilly promises an article on “What is Web 2.0” while in the meantime offering a list of Web 2.0 “design patterns” and a Web 2.0 Meme Map (hat tip to Chris Anderson). There are even dedicated Web 2.0 blogs here, here and here.
It is striking to me that virtually all of these definitions end up being lists of one type or another. They seem to be focusing on examples, components or dimensions of Web 2.0 without really getting to the essence of the concept. Since I have enormous respect for the folks who have tried to capture the meaning of this term, I suspect there is probably good reason why they have stayed at the level of examples, components or dimensions and avoided the temptation to try to capture the essence.
Yet, in looking at these lists, I can’t help but feel that there is an essence behind the term that is waiting to be captured. So, in the spirit of entering the conversation, let me suggest that Web 2.0 ultimately refers to “an emerging network-centric platform to support distributed, collaborative and cumulative creation by its users.” Let's look at each element of the definition separately:
Platform. Platform is an important concept because it suggests a foundation that is meant to be built upon rather than self-contained.
Emerging. It is emerging because it supports extensions to itself, facilitating a bootstrapping process to create very complex functionality from very simple building blocks. Web 2.0 is far from a finished product, it is a rapidly evolving platform.
Network-centric. In contrast to other technology platforms like PCs or mainframes, it is not a standalone platform, but instead Web 2.0 is built upon an open network, making it pervasive, extending across the entire globe. As a network-centric platform, it is device-independent – it is meant to be accessed by devices of all kinds, ranging from PCs and mobile phones to RFID tags and bio-sensor devices.
Creation. The ultimate purpose and significance of the platform is to support creation, not just communication or participation in sharing of interests. This is what makes it truly distinctive relative to previous generations of networks. We’re also not just talking about creation of media or digital products and services – this platform is becoming central to the creation of a broad range of physical products as well.
Users. Rather than viewing creation as a highly specialized activity, this platform encourages users of all types to become involved in the creation process. The well-established boundaries between producers and consumers and professionals and amateurs are rapidly eroding.
Distributed. Because it is pervasive, Web 2.0 facilitates distributed creation – it doesn’t matter where the individuals or communities reside, they can access the platform.
Collaboration. Because it is built upon a network, it also enhances the potential for collaboration. We are not talking about isolated nodes of creation, but instead the ability for individuals and communities to connect together in the creative process in ways that were never possible before.
Cumulative. Perhaps the most important aspect of this platform is that it encourages cumulative creation. This stems from the modularity that is a key design principle of Web 2.0 and it has profound implications for creative activity. It means that wherever and whenever creative activity occurs, it can be appropriated and built upon by others, further strengthening the bootstrapping process. Since what is being created is meant to be shared, it becomes less and less useful to think of the output as products and much more important to view the output as services that in turn support the creation of other services.
Because of the focus on creation, I am very taken with Ross Mayfield’s formulation that “the web is increasingly less about places and other nouns, but verbs.”
In many respects, Web 2.0 represents a return to origins of Internet. The original goal of the pioneers developing and deploying the Internet was to connect researchers and their computers together so that they could more effectively pursue their research in distributed locations. The addition of the World Wide Web in the early 1990’s, despite the best intentions of its key developer, Tim Berners Lee, ended up representing a detour from that original vision. Although there were certainly exceptions, Web 1.0 largely consisted of stand-alone web sites for specialized publishers and vendors seeking to more effectively reach audiences and consumers. It was a broadcast and distribution medium, rather than a creation medium. Web 2.0 changes all that.
While the Web 2.0 definition I propose may lead some people to focus attention on the technologies required to build this emergent platform, I agree with Tim O’Reilly that it is more helpful to describe it as a mindset. Technologies alone can only do so much – they are ultimately only enablers. The real power is in the mindset that will be required to re-shape economic, social and legal frameworks to exploit the full potential of the technology.
I hope that these economic, social and legal issues get as much, if not more, attention in the forthcoming Web 2.0 conference organized by Tim and others.