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What is Web 2.0 and how does it work?
Ask a few Internet experts what the term Web 2.0 means and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some say Web 2.0 is a set of philosophies and practices that provide web users with an immersive and rich experience. Others say it’s a collection of new apps and technologies that make it easier for people to find information and connect with each other online. Some journalists claim that the term means nothing – it’s just a marketing ploy used to agitate social networking sites.
During this brainstorming session, O’Reilly Media editor Dale Dougherty coined the phrase Web 2.0 to describe the new web environment that emerged after the crash. While dozens of Internet companies have declared bankruptcy, some resilient sites have managed to survive. New websites are popping up every day, and many of them use a very different business model than the business sites that existed before the crash.
However, no one has a clear definition of what Web 2.0 actually means. If there is Web 2.0, does that mean there is also Web 1.0? The use of “2.0” implies an upgrade or a new generation of websites, but there is no consensus on what differentiates Web 2.0 from Web 1.0.
In September 2005, Tim O’Reilly published a blog entry defining Web 2.0. The explanation includes five pages of text and graphics illustrating O’Reilly’s view of the meaning of the term.
O’Reilly’s philosophy of Web 2.0 includes these ideas:
– Use the Web as an application platform
– Democratize the Web
– Use new methods to disseminate information
Use the web as an application platform
In a blog post explaining the philosophy of Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly writes that before the bursting of the dot-com bubble, web companies like Netscape focused on delivering products. In the case of Netscape, the product is a web browser. These products will then serve as the basis for a suite of other applications and products. O’Reilly’s vision of a Web 2.0 company is to provide a service rather than a product.
The example that O’Reilly uses in his blog posts is Google. He says Google’s value comes from several factors:
- It is a cross-platform service. You can access Google on a PC or Mac (using a web browser) or on a mobile device such as a cell phone.
- It circumvents the business model established by the software industry. You do not need to purchase any specific software package to use this service.
- It includes a dedicated database of information – search results – which works seamlessly with its search engine software. Without a database, the search application is meaningless. On the other hand, without a search application, the database is too large to browse.
Another important part of using the web as a platform is designing what O’Reilly calls a rich user experience. These are applications and small program applets that fit into larger programs or web pages, to make web browsing and Internet access more enjoyable. For example, the service provided by Twitter is based on a very simple concept: members can send messages to their entire network of friends using a simple interface. But Twitter also allows third-party developers to access parts of Twitter’s application programming interface (API). This access allows them to create new applications based on the basic functionalities of Twitter. For example, Twitterific is a Mac program made by a third-party developer called Iconfactory. It integrates the Twitter service into a desktop application for users. Although Twitter does not develop Twitterific, it provides Iconfactory with the information it needs to build apps.
Other sites follow a similar philosophy. In 2007, social networking site Facebook gave third-party developers access to its API. In a short time, hundreds of new applications have appeared, using Facebook as a platform. Facebook members can choose from dozens of apps to enhance their browsing experience.
The services and access offered by websites are an important part of the Web 2.0 philosophy and are linked to the idea of democratizing the Web. In the next section, we’ll look at how ordinary people are interacting and changing the Internet.
Democratize the Web
Web democratization refers to how people access and contribute to the Internet. Many early web pages were static, with no way for users to add or interact with information. In some ways, many businesses view the Internet as an extension of television – browsers will passively see any content provided by the web. However, other companies have different ideas. For example, Amazon allows visitors to create accounts and submit book reviews. Anyone can play the role of a literary critic. Before long, other customers were using these reviews to help them decide which book to buy. Amazon members help shape the browsing experience.
The Web 2.0 philosophy emphasizes the importance of people’s interactions with the Internet. Everyone has the opportunity to contribute to the web. And, by paying attention to what users search for and do online, businesses can provide better service and build customer loyalty. Some web pages rely heavily on user contributions without them there would be no website. The Wiki is a great example. Users can enter information, edit existing data, or even delete entire sections of the wiki. Ultimately, the people who visit a website determine its content and appearance.
Tim O’Reilly writes about the importance of harnessing collective intelligence. He said a website shaped by user contributions would become a superior destination to any other site. He cites Wikipedia as the perfect example. O’Reilly believes that an informed community of users can monitor and maintain the site. However, just as anyone can provide information to Wikipedia, someone can submit incorrect information, either unintentionally or intentionally. There is no way to guarantee the accuracy of the information and you cannot hold anyone responsible for the transmission of incorrect information.
Another element of web democratization are beacons. Web beacons are labels that allow users to associate information with a specific topic. Many sites allow users to apply tags to information ranging from uploaded images to blog entries. Tags become important when people use search engines. Users can tag their information with search terms, and when other users enter search terms that match the tags, the information will be listed as search results. Data labeling makes finding information faster and more efficient. User contribution tags are part of folksonomy, the classification system on the web.
The final piece of the democratization puzzle is open source software. An open source program is one in which a programmer allows anyone to view the code they use to create applications. And you can do more than just watch. Some may allow you to modify the code to make it more efficient or even create a new program using the original code as a base. Ideally, open source programs will receive the best quality assurance testing available because anyone can verify and test them.
But the democratization of the Web is only part of the Web 2.0 philosophy. In the next section, we’ll see how websites dynamically distribute information.
Use new methods to disseminate information
Before the dot-com crash, many web pages had images and text that were rarely updated by web page administrators. As web-editing software has become more user-friendly, it has become easier to make changes more frequently. Some companies continue to present information in a static, non-interactive manner, but some are beginning to experiment with new ways to deliver information.
A newer way is to use web syndication formats such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS). With RSS, users can subscribe to a web page and receive updates whenever the administrator of that page makes a change. Some programmers design applications that create RSS readers on the desktop PC or Mac, which means users can check for updates from their favorite websites without even opening a web browser.
Another way of sharing information on the Web has surprised many: blogs. While people have been creating personal web pages since the early days of the web, the blog format is very different from traditional personal web pages. For one thing, most blogs are organized chronologically, allowing readers to view the most recent entries, then return to the archives and follow the blog from start to finish.
Blogs are a great way to quickly deliver information to readers. People read blogs, see things that interest them, and write about them on their own blogs. Information started to spread from one blogger to another blogger. Marketing companies call this blog-to-blog method of spreading viral marketing information. Many companies are looking for ways to use viral marketing to their advantage – it’s powerful, inexpensive advertising because the targeted audience does most of the work for you.
Web pages such as blogs rely on the use of permalinks. A permalink is a hyperlink that points to a specific blog post. Without permalinks, discussing blog entries would be a tedious process. All links will take the user to the main blog page, which may have been updated since the link was created. Permalinks allow users to attach paths to specific blog posts. If you see a particularly interesting discussion on a blog, you can use the permalink to guide your friends to read the topic.
Another key concept of Web 2.0 is the incorporation of non-computing devices into the Internet. Many cell phones and PDAs now have some level of Internet connectivity, and Apple’s iTunes application integrates seamlessly with iPods. O’Reilly cites the expansion of Internet services beyond computers as another example of the evolution of the Web.