After I published that little Not 2.0 squib and Tim O’Reilly wrote six long paragraphs of rejoinder, I said “this would be a good time for others to join the conversation”. Well, lots did, and clearly one more go-around is called for. [Update: I see that Tim O’Reilly has more to say; he did it as a comment to his original piece, either scroll waaaay down or search for “continuing”. I bet we could have an entertaining debate at some conference, lots of unique perspectives have emerged.] [Update: Mark Pilgrim points out that I meant “nauseated”, not “nauseous”.]
Where We Agree · If you read Tim O’Reilly’s piece back when he first published it, you might want to revisit it and look at the comments, which are voluminous and smart. While Tim gets a little polemical (says I am “completely wrong” and accuses me of being a “language purist” - ain’t nonna them round here, bubba) he makes one really good point: These are golden days, on the Web. The content is getting bigger and richer and deeper, user interfaces are getting better, and interesting new applications are showing up. His premise, basically, is that we need a name for this renaissance, and “Web 2.0” is as good as any, and it seems to be getting traction, so where’s the harm?
He says “The right words are the ones people actually use”, and as one who invested years working on the Oxford English Dictionary, probably the single largest monument to that world-view, I couldn’t agree more. For those who don’t know: the OED never ever says how words should be used; it only ever describes how words are used, and never does so without supporting evidence.
Half the evidence is on Tim’s side: “Web 2.0” is getting used a lot. But it also matters—a lot—how people use it. And what I see in that department troubles me.
Niggles · Before I go on, a couple of niggling points of disagreement: Tim uses the phrase “monetizing the long tail”, which makes me feel vaguely nauseated. I think that there’s business to be done out there in the long tail (for example see Side-Business Software by Jason Fried) but I’d bet most people who set out with the goal of “monetizing” it will fail. That was the 1999 disease—thinking about how you’re going to monetize people, rather than about meeting their needs and scratching their itches.
Secondly Tim says “Web 2.0 is the era when people have come to realize that it's not the software that enables the web that matters so much as the services that are delivered over the web.” Maybe I’m just a geek, but I think it’s the data and the hyperlinks that are at the centre of everything; if you focus on keeping that as good, clean, and open as possible, the right software and services fall out. Like Sam Ruby says, “It’s just data.”
Niggles aside, Tim’s piece is excellent, in particular the paragraph beginning with “You have to remember...”.
Further Buzzword Reading · My piece and Tim’s reply got reactions, and I’d been intending to try to do some summarizing, but yow, there’s just too much out there. Here are a few that I cared enough to bookmark myself. First, We Are The Web: this is the Kevin Kelly piece that Tim references. It’s brilliant; Kevin and the culture he helped build around Wired have always excelled at literate wonderment over the Net’s collective miracles. I would quibble with his metaphors—I don’t think the Net is much like a mind, and I don’t think it’s “fractal” in any meaningful sense. Still, great stuff. But not particularly forward-looking; that same Wired culture, so great at telling the tale of today, has been notably poor at forecasting the future. Mind you, so has everyone else. Anyhow, this is great but it’s not particularly 2.0.
Ian Davis, cited by many, argues that “Web 2.0” is an attitude, not a technology. Consistent with what Tim says, I think.
Bernard Goldbach at IrishEyes points to Brian Fling’s 10 Reasons to Publish to Mobile, and let me reveal my own big hunch about the future: if there really is a Web, The Next Generation, it’ll be the Web of mobile devices, with not many “computers” in the loop.
I even subscribed to a tag-driven RSS feed; which instantly revealed that “Web 2.0” means, well, anything you want it to. A lot of people using it are hustlers and entrepreneurs trying to paint their Big Idea in attractive colours; specifically, a lot of the pointers are to material from or about Venture Capitalists. Which also smells kind of 1999 to me.
In Tim’s comments, he replies to Shel Israel, drawing a buzzword analogy to “Open Source” (hmm, there don’t seem to be links, just search for “open source”). Here, perhaps, is the nub of the disagreement: Open Source means something quite specific that you can explain to anyone in a sentence or two. Web 2.0 means so little, and is so vulnerable to corruption from the hypemeisters, that I suspect that if it’s a meme at all, it’ll be short-lived. Like P2P, as Sam Ruby points out. Or like B2B or KM; none of these things would do well as a conference title today. Or (here’s a prediction) SOA.
Charging Off In All Directions · Assuming there’s some meat behind the mantra, what is it? Well, per Tim and the del.icio.us feed, Web 2.0 is about social networking and AJAX and services and platforms and the long tail. And what do these things have in common? Good question; I don’t know the answer.
Specifically, I think AJAX is nice, maybe a game-changer; if you look at del.icio.us, for example, the great thing about that UI is how fast and lean and mean it is, I tried and discarded a bunch of other online-bookmark services just because they were too slow. There are a lot of ways for AJAX to go wrong, and for lots of other high-value web apps, plain old HTML-and-forms will meet users’ needs just fine. But still, AJAX-or-something-like-it is probably what keeps the Microsoft Avalon people tossing and turning at night.
I think that blogging and syndication, A.K.A. the writable web, are unambiguously huge, with a lot more growth potential starting from here. (For Unix geeks: James Snell says chmod 777 web.)
So, in the big Web 2.0 picture, what’s hot and what’s hype?
What’s Hot, What’s Not, and How to Tell · I once once published a multi-part series at ongoing on how to figure out which technologies are real and which vapour. But I think there’s an even simpler predictor that works well for “Web 2.0”. You know something is important when, all of a sudden, a huge number of people start using it. Not because they’re told to, not because management says so, not because the analysts and prognosticators think it’s going to be hot, but because it does something they like or need. The most obvious examples in my memory are (20 years back) the arrival of an avalanche of Personal Computers on everyone’s desk, and (10 years back) the massive grassroots uptake of the Web.
And then there’s the Mobile Web, or whatever you call it when people use the technology without using a “computer”. The numbers of potentially-capable devices are just mind-boggling, you’re probably seeing a year’s worth of blog/feed growth every couple of days. Right now it’s ringtones and SMS, but at some point the garden walls will come down, and when a lot of those phones want in, that’s going to need a name way more grandiose than “Web 2.0”.