Web 2.0 is about…

This is a reprint from the Tech Times #124, for those who don’t follow that publication.

Web 2.0 is about what the development community considers new and good ideas and trends in Web development today. Though the specific technologies, companies, and applications that symbolize Web 2.0 change daily, there are some core themes that they all share. It is these themes that, in my mind, define Web 2.0.

I should point out that I haven’t devised this list on my own. A lot of bright minds have tackled this question before me, and this is only my take on the answer. Other authorities you might like to consult are Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0 and Jeff Veen’s Designing for Web 2.0.

Sites as applications

When people first hear about Web 2.0, this is usually the angle they come at it from: Websites with rich user interfaces that behave more like desktop applications than a collection of interlinked pages to be read.

The first widely-used examples have come from Google: Gmail and Google Maps. If you haven’t tried them yet, you really should.

Macromedia actually began pushing this approach to Web design several years ago, under the banner of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). In Macromedia’s view, RIAs were best build with Flash as a front-end to display rich user interfaces, and this led them to retrofit Flash MX with a library of interface components, and to release Flex, a platform for desktop developers to design RIAs in a familiar way.

Macromedia recently relaunched this movement under a new name, The Flash Platform, to compete with the alternative approach of AJAX-powered DOM Scripting that is at the heart of Google’s popular apps.

User Participation

A big part of Web 2.0 is turning passive visitors and readers into active participants in producing the value that is offered by a website. If you’ve ever been addicted to a Web-based forum, then you know how powerful this can be. Web 2.0 is about taking that “power of community” and applying it to the Web as a whole.

Of course, blogging comes to mind. Communities of like-minded users, each with their own weblog, take user-generated content and put it front-and-centre. But blogging was only the beginning. WikiPedia and Flickr are the current poster children for user-generated content.

WikiPedia is simply a very recent and popular example of a very old idea: a wiki is a website where everything (or nearly everything) can be edited by any one of its users. The theory is that the site collects the entire body of knowledge of all its users on a particular subject, resulting in content that is more valuable than the sum of its parts, and which is resistant to sabotage by any one person. WikiPedia simply distinguishes itself by choosing as its subject general knowledge, in the encyclopaedic sense.

As for Flickr, not only is the site a showcase for content (i.e. photographs) that is produced entirely by its users, but Flickr takes this a step further by allowing the very structure of the site to come from its users. Users can form their own ad hoc groups to discuss related photos, and can give their photos tags, which are simple keywords that form a “folksonomy”, the community-driven equivalent of a traditional category structure (a taxonomy). The site simply provides well-designed tools for its own users to build a valuable repository of content.

Taking this even further (and arguably too far), Ning is a site that provides the same kinds of skeletal tools for its users as Flickr, except that the tools are generalized to allow just about any type of user-driven content repository to spring up.

The big players are jumping on the user-generated content bandwagon too, with Google controlling one of the easiest blogging platforms to use, Blogger, and Yahoo’s new user-generated content focus, with its podcasting and blog search services.

Openness

Many of the traditional media organizations–the music and film industries in particular–are getting a lot of criticism for basing their business on closed models: keeping content locked behind proprietary formats and encryption schemes designed to limit what users can do with content.

Web 2.0 is about the opposite approach: success through openness. But openness can mean a lot of things, especially in the context of the Web.

It can mean building Websites that comply with open standards, like the W3C recommendations for HTML, CSS, scripting, and accessibility. And this needn’t stifle innovation, as the microformats initiative, which is building new (open) data formats in compliance with existing standards like HTML.

It can mean letting users control their own data, so that whatever they put into your website, they can get out again on a moment’s notice and in a standard format that they can use with other applications and services. The fact that Flickr will use any tags or captions embedded in your photos is a nice start. Even better would be if they stored the tags and captions you entered into the site in that same format, so that you could download your photos with all the metadata intact if you decided there was something better than Flickr out there.

It can even mean letting users control your data, by publishing APIs for the services that make up your site so that users can mix and match such services on their own sites. A perfect example of this is the Google Maps API, which allows just about anyone to display a full-featured dynamic map on their own site.

A thriving culture of “mashups” is springing up around these open APIs, proving that there are real opportunities in this openness.

Web 2.0 definitely means openness, in all of its forms.

Of course, everything I’ve mentioned here is what’s considered Web 2.0 this year. By next year, the “new thinking” will have moved on, and the meaning of the term "Web 2.0" will have moved with it.

Stick around — we can follow it together.

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