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there and back again

what “web 2.0” really means — and why “web 3.0” will never come

I generally have a bad reaction to fads but perhaps as strong a reaction to things that can be easily turned into them, or misappropriated as such.

“Web 2.0,” which Tim O’Reilly & Co. coined back in 2004 (which now feels like a century ago), and that Tim discussed at length in this 2005 Post-FOO Camp article, fits the category. Especially in that now I keep seeing references to “Web 2.1”, “Web 3.0”, “Web 4.0,” and so forth, as if we’re dealing with software releases and somehow just incrementing an integer by 1 will turn the wheels of innovation and presto, new world order for everyone…

I was at the FOO Camp session that year when we discussed the “meme map” included in that article. It was intriguing, and while I agreed and continue to agree with a lot of the ideas, there was always a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that the discussion missed the mark somewhere.

We did (and still do) describe Web 2.0 by its attributes, rather than its essence. Perhaps Web 2.0 is defined by heavy use of AJAX, or the Web As A Platform, or Hackability, or The Long Tail, or even the combination of those things and more. But all of those are features, or technologies, and they don’t really define what web 2.0 is–anymore than having GPS and satellite radio, or a hybrid engine, on a car makes it “Car 2.0.” At least not to me.

More than that, there is no way to translate all those attributes or examples of what makes up web 2.0 to something that people outside of the industry can understand easily. They may understand that it’s different, as we do, but seeing that something is different and knowing why are not the same. (Yes, not a shocking concept, but it seems to me that we forget that sometimes).

In late 2007 or early 2008 (don’t remember when exactly) I finally got to an explanation of what web 2.0 is that I’m comfortable with, and today, after reading about some new web dot-release somewhere, I thought this was as good a moment as any to write it down.


Web 2.0 apps are different from 1.0 apps in that they’re native to the web, and you can do things with them that simply were not possible before.

In the second half of the 90’s lots of things went online. This first generation of web app implementations was notable because, for the most part, it was simply a translation of current mechanisms and processes into a website-based process in some form. For a lot of commerce it was simply extending existing mail- or phone-order processes into ones that would take input from a website. Newspapers looked just like … newspapers, but on a screen. (Sadly, many of them still do). Corporate communications were one-way, essentially like fliers, perhaps with easier navigation, but still fliers.

Eventually, around the time of the dotcom crash, we had learned enough about how to build this stuff that we could start using it not just to create shallow, pale copies of their pre-web counterparts, but to create new things. The ability to broadcast information to millions at low cost, reusing standard infrastructure, and to manipulate and evolve that infrastructure since it was largely built on software (something which, notably, was impossible in any of the previous large infrastructure buildouts of the 20th century).

Web 2.0 is the web native, as it really is, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Web 2.0 is really just “The Web” — its unique capabilities now more (not yet fully) realized. This is why there won’t be a Web 2.1, or 3.0, or whatever. There is just The Web. Now, I’m sure this won’t stop people from attaching the “Web 3.0” moniker to a bunch of things, but I doubt that it will take off like “Web 2.0” did, since it won’t really describe something new. It will just be marketing.
When you use the test of “what wasn’t possible before,” Web 2.0 sites become easy to spot. Features, like AJAX, may be correlated but are not required.

Ning, Facebook, Twitter, we all rely to different degrees on the web’s unique ability to not only allow the creation and publishing of any kind of content, time-shifted or not, but also to create gradations of privacy and accessibility for that content. (Google, btw, was a key enabler of the web’s broadcast power).

Amazon.com looks like just a catalog on the surface, not unlike, say, Buy.com. But add on the review system (perhaps one of Amazon’s most underestimated assets by outside observers, at least judging from what people focus on), the forums (clunky as they are) and the real-time feedback on popularity, and you get something else entirely.

Or take (perhaps surprisingly) The Drudge Report. It doesn’t matter that its design and HTML code seems to be prepared by drunk monkeys circa 1995. What matters is that it is a pure web construct.

How so? Consider: A page with nothing but a massive collection of hyperlinks, almost no text, a few photos, updated dozens of times per day and followed by millions of people.

Sounds like Web 2.0 to me.

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