The Technology and Culture of Web 2.0
Of the many subjects percolating through today’s information universe, few have received more attention than the mix of technology and culture known as Web 2.0.
Web 2.0 is perhaps not the most dramatic expression of technological breakthrough we have seen—indeed, as we shall see later, much of its technology foundation is evolutionary rather than new. Nonetheless, Web 2.0 is uniquely important because it represents perhaps the first time we have seen culture and technology impact one another in real time with little or no latency. This dramatically higher level of immediacy in Web 2.0’s design and reality has engendered a number of forces that appear, and in fact may be, revolutionary in their nature and impact. Indeed, the blogosphere has crackled with statements about Web 2.0, at one extreme hailing it as harbinger of a new “democratic information world,”1 while at the other condemning it as “false,” “disaster,” and “societal suicide.” While it is likely none of these, Web 2.0 raises a number of issues for which there is little precedent, and as such, is worthy of a close look from all sides.
Like few developments before it, Web 2.0 has grown from a series of intersections between cultural and technological evolution. It will likely be adopted along lines dictated by these two dimensions, impacting society as much in one as the other. In this article, we attempt to address a number of questions about Web 2.0, organized roughly into three areas:
- Why is there a Web 2.0 and what trends in our culture have generated the perception that change is needed in the way the Web functions?
- What is Web 2.0 and what is it not? How is Web 2.0 different from earlier incarnations of the Web, and what technology and cultural factors are integral to its architecture and operation?
- What will Web 2.0 and its successors (Web 3.0 is already being discussed) mean for the culture that created it?
While no single article can hope to fully illuminate these areas, we hope to provide readers with a frame of reference by which the Web 2.0 phenomenon may be measured, evaluated and, if we are attentive, managed.
Technology and Culture: a Changing Balance
If society has displayed one enduring characteristic during the past several millennia, it is the interaction and mutual impact of culture and technology: how we live, how we imagine, create, and adopt new technology; and how we are, in turn, changed by it. The recent description of a growing “continuous partial attention”2 phenomenon among frequent users of instantaneous communications provides at least anecdotal evidence that how we use technology is as important as the technology itself. While much has been written about culture and technology separately, the more subtle aspects of their interaction have often escaped our attention. Perhaps the inattention is because until relatively recently those mutual interactions have been offset by long periods of time, sometimes centuries, between (1) desire and perceived need, (2) development of technology responsive to the need, and, once it has been adopted, (3) its cultural impact. For instance, the printing revolution usually associated with Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, actually had its roots nearly 1,200 years before with invention of the Codex or edge-sewn book.3 It then continued for another several centuries after Gutenberg as the potential for mass availability of reading material impacted society’s educational and governance systems. Reading material changed from a focus on education for the religious and royal elite to education—and empowerment—for the masses. With centuries between cause and effect, these interactions, however concrete, were easy to miss.
With the passage of time, however, the pace of this cultural/technological interaction has quickened, making the perceived need, realization, and impact more contemporaneous and easily discernible—and arguably more important. A young United States’ desire for respect in a world dominated by the navies and privateers of the European powers, for example, drove a Philadelphia naval architect’s development of a radical improvement in warship design4 in the 1790s, having a material effect less than 15 years later on the outcome of the war of 1812 and the rise of the new nation as a global power. This compression of time between need/desire, development, and impact has continued apace until today, the process is often measured in months, a few years at most.
Typically, the individuals and groups responsible for technological development have focused on what the technology could be made to do, leaving the ultimate uses and impact of that technology to others. In some cases, this neglect has created a dramatic level of myopia that, although not intentional, has had far-reaching effect on society. Ray Tomlinson, the developer of email in the early 1970s, failed to anticipate the rise and growth of spam,5 admitting that his focus was on the roughly 1,000 users of the systems on which he was working even though it is arguable that the signs and roots of spam were present even then in the broader society. Packet-switched networking had been described several years before and junk “mail” was already a problem, for both postal and telephone media. As we live with the results of these early failures to anticipate and deal with writing on the wall, we must confront the question, with the same level of development now requiring scarcely three years, whether we can afford to ignore the impacts inherent in today’s developments, including Web 2.0.
To do that, we must first grasp just what is, and is not, part of Web 2.0.
Web 2.0 Technologies
The term “Web 2.0” suggests a new release, a significant advance introducing new features and capabilities on the web all at once, but the analogy of a major release of a software or hardware product is misleading. It is more of a conceptual shift of emphasis, a recognition of changes that have been emerging over time in the uses of web capabilities which, to a surprising extent, are not new.
From a technological standpoint, it might better be called Web 1.2. Many of the technologies that support Web 2.0 have in fact been part of the web since its beginning, and salient usage features of Web 2.0 have long been common web practice. Beginning with XHTML and HTML markup that is semantically more informative, and CSS further separating content from presentation (and support for XML/XSL coming “real soon”), the evolutionary advances in technology that support Web 2.0 include improvements in
- server software
- Web syndication (a form of publication by making parts of a website available for use on other websites) with “web feeds” using RSS or Atom
- protocols for instant messaging, such as XMPP, and software for social networking, such as FOAF and XFN
- SOAP to send messages and instructions for servers, and other protocols for web APIs to exchange XML or JSON payloads
- network architecture principles such as REST to support transparent machine-to-machine interactions
- plugins and extensions for standards-compliant (or standards-oriented) browsers
- mechanisms for users to annotate content with comments or metadata tags, sometimes elaborating them into folksonomies, as with del.icio.us
- systems for combining content from different sources into mashups
- tools for creating and publishing content in blogs (weblogs), wikis, and forums
- Internet storage systems, as seen in the vast storage capacity provided by Google
Web 2.0 has much in common with the open source movement in software development, and indeed we might say that Web 2.0 is the extension of motivations and organizing concepts from the open source development world to a more general population, riding on open source tools, such as wikis. Any technology that fosters the creativity and collaboration of volunteer participants on the web—the keynote of both open source and Web 2.0—can be called Web 2.0 technology.
From a user perspective, content is king on the web, and always has been. Now the power of dynamic content is emerging. The focus is now on participation, beyond simply publishing your content on the web. Web 2.0 technology establishes spaces on the web where users collaborate to share, modify, and recombine content, adding value by doing so. This is not to say that publishing one’s content has ceased. One of the remarkable consequences is the emergence of the ‘blogosphere,’ in which previously unheralded people compete with and in many cases become more influential than professional journalists and pundits in reporting and evaluating news. Blogs thrive on readers’ collaborative comment and cross-talk in ways that letters to the editor never could.
In these collaboration spaces created and enabled by Web technologies, communities of interest emerge, so that users with quirky minority and niche interests more easily find their fellow birds of a feather—the hitherto neglected 20 percent (or less) of the 80-20 rule, the “long tail”6 that enables web-based business models exemplified by Amazon.com, eBay, and Craigslist. As the established success of these business models indicates, this trend is not really new. It is an acceleration of existing trends and an extension of them to broader populations. Satisfying the user has always been the problem. One key to their success is in making the collective intelligence of those populations part of the solution. Increasingly, technology supports these trends.
Tim O’Reilly did much to clarify the term Web 2.0 from a business model perspective at a 2004 conference. A brainstorming session produced the preliminary “meme map”7 reproduced in Figure 1, which very conveniently provides us a succinct summary of these ideas.
Figure 1: Web 2.0 Meme Map
Is Web 2.0 only a change of perspective, an epiphany by builders of business models, with no significant technological developments to mark it? No, hardly. But of those technologies that enable collaboration, sharing, spontaneous creativity, and all the rest of it, no single innovation can stand up and declare itself to be the change that constitutes Web 2.0. The nearest contender to that title might be RSS, “the most significant advance in the fundamental architecture of the web since early hackers realized that CGI could be used to create database-backed websites” according to Tim O’Reilly.8 “RSS allows someone