Of mutual masturbation

by Francois Joseph de Kermadec

Like many Internet users, I rely on Google for part of my content lookups, I do frequent trips to Wikipedia, I own a Flickr and a Del.icio.us account. I have believed in web-based desktop applications since their earliest days and have an equal interest in their counterpart, the online service world. In fact, some could say I'm the poster child for Web 2.0: I never really knew the Web 1.0, except for a brief encounter with the thing during my Mac OS 9 days, and I have always taken things such as live bookmarks, feeds and dynamic sites for granted.

Somehow, however, I just cannot buy that there is such a thing about a Web 2.0 and, the more I read about it, the less I am convinced. Sure, new technologies such as AJAX are bringing a new dimension to websites, on-demand content is slowly shaping up to be a reality thanks to RSS feeds, blogging software allows for a true discussion between users. Google maps is phenomenal, Flickr rocks and Wikipedia rules.

I understand that temptation is big to write about a Web 2.0 that we, the geeks of today, have created. The founding fathers created the Web 1.0 and did something great but only us, the pioneers of today, have found an answer, right? Not quite, I'm afraid.

When the web started, there was this idea it would allow users to communicate, exchange ideas, collaborate. And it worked: people had mailing lists, Usenet to share ideas on, send notes to their pals. Even rudimentary UNIX implementations have a "talk" program that is the ancestor of live chat. The concept of an "Online library", of a "Discussion platform", existed long before CSS, RSS, XML and other 3-letters acronyms saw the light of day. Mailing lists used to work smoothly and allowed for the discussion of various topics, from many places. Actually, if you jump to any computer out there, I bet you you'll find some mail program, even if it's "mail", Pine or something equally un-sexy. And this program will allow you to communicate with peers.

The web of today is full of fancy technologies, forums, chatrooms, trackbacks. It is also full of SPAM, viruses, crackers, it forces us to update our operating systems and sites backend every couple weeks. And we all sit around, considering it normal, praising ourselves for facilitating exchange. Google maps may rock because of its APIs, its innovative use of JavaScript scrolling and its unbelievably clear pinpointing capabilities but it is a mapping system. It sure is a world ahead of Mappy (or an equally "Web 1.0" service) but it is a mapping system. Blogs do make publishing sites easier and force users into a structure that make the ramblings of even the sloppiest of people exploitable. It is nice but it is an evolution of home pages. Entire sites are dedicated to making forms nicer with AJAX, forms, the one element of the web we all wanted dead a while ago!

There is a new web, a better, smoother, more accessible web and we see it shaping up. That is a fact and I'm certainly not denying it. The people behind the sites I just named made a tremendous job and deserve congratulations on the development of something great. But did they change the web? No. They built on some sound technologies, they maybe made exchanging more glamorous, more accessible to a few select users.

While we the geeks praise the Google APIs and the millionth implementation of a cool Google hack, the advent of RSS streams on Flickr and the power of Ruby, the majority of planet earth is still loading "Google.com" in Internet Explorer and typing queries such as "Error DLL fix bug", hoping to get an answer. People wanting directions may land on Google maps (if it were even clear such a service existed from the Google home page, which it is not), type in an address and print the page to take it with them in their car.

What about communication? What about helping these people? What about the Internet as a platform for progress? Is Web 2.0 about APIs and Acronyms? About facilitating communication between people who know which browser to use (Firefox, of course), who know what a "permalink" stands for? If Flickr is so easy to use, how come my grandmother is not using it? This woman was born before the television era and yet she owns one. She even owns a VCR, which definitely weren't invented when she grew up. The woman is not stupid and she has embraced technology. So, why would her using Flickr be that much of a stretch?

If Google is so accurate, how come typing "Error DLL fix bug" brings me first to a blog entry and not to the Microsoft support site? Of course, I know why, I know how Google works but most people don't. Most people will go to Google, see the first link has no meaning to them (as I write this blog, the first returned result has little to no chances to help anyone looking into fixing a faulty Windows installation) and will quit there.

People still think Macworld is published by Apple. How can we expect them to understand the structure of a wiki?

The users I am talking to still think an e-mail inbox is tied to a computer, like a postal address is tied to a building, ask me whether "I can query the system" when they need to look up a price on Amazon and quit every software they use before opening a second application. Don't laugh, these people have PhDs and are trying very hard to wrap their minds around computers.

The web is growing but the painful truth is that most users are lost in it. And no amount of RSS or Ruby on Rails, no matter how great they are, are going to change that. Our mission as Web Pioneers is to bring these people on board, make the technology accessible to them. The more we "go forward", the more people we lose along the track, leaving them confused and disoriented.

Right now, Web 2.0 looks like an interactive, collaborative, responsive, user friendly space. Only it lacks users.


2005-10-01 19:30:45
Not to be an ass...
With "Web 2.0", I get the feeling that Tim is trying to apply some "nigritude ultramarine"-esque blog-fu in order to sell me a Safari subscription or something.

I mean... are we still talking about HTML/CSS/CGI/ECMAscript, or is there some new technology being introduced here?

Can I safely ignore it?

2005-10-01 23:25:46
Web 2.0 is a modest, but useful insight
My first thought on coming across Web 2.0 was that it's like the "Semantic Web", or "Internet 2" - a fundamental change in technology and paradigms. In fact it's much more modest than that.

I think all Tim and Co. are saying is that new forms of internet services are springing up that truly take advantage of the capabilities and structure of the web in ways that were not obvious in the early days. That's it. All the rest is just examples and discussion.

It's a modest observation, but nevertheless useful. What is it about Wikipedia that allows it to trump the online Encyclopedia Britanica? What is it about Google that made it so much more powerful than other search engines? We have clearly seen the demise of many older services based on pre-web information and software architectures, and the rise of new equivalent services that take advantage of the Web to provide clear advantages. This is a streightforward observation.

As for nobody using these services, we're talking about Google, Amazon, eBay and Wikipedia here. Each of these has contended with, and surpassed older Web 1.0 equivalent services and now they define the internet experience. For most users, these services are the internet.

2005-10-02 04:23:54
Not to be an ass...

If there is such a thing as Web 2.0, it certainly is about the convergence of technologies (existing or new) and about the new usage that is being made of them.

In that, I do not think that Web 2.0 is something that can be ignored. While I would not call it that way and while I see it as a logical evolution of the Internet instead of a revolution or a deep change, I do not think it is something to "ignore" or "accept". In many ways, it is a fact and, by using the Internet, you are already witnessing the change — whatever that change is and however you choose to call it.

More than being about a new technology, I think Web 2.0 refers to a new online business and social structure — or, again, the crystallization of existing elements.

As far as Safari subscriptions go, I do own one and they're pretty great! ;^)


2005-10-02 04:33:35
Web 2.0 is a modest, but useful insight

First of all, thank you very much for taking the time to post!

I do agree fully that new online services are seeing the light of day and that these services take better advantage of the convergence of technologies than their ancestors did. I also agree that this is an important observation in that it shows the maturation of Internet development, out of the experimental stage and into a more productive, innovative era.

We need however to be careful when we say that these new services have superseded the old ones. Indeed, while we, regular users of the Internet, may feel like they have, we need to keep in mind that most Internet users do not use the network in the same way than us.

For many people, a search engine is what is provided by their ISP or by MSN. Google maps isn't even on the radar as it is not advertised anywhere and Wikipedia lacks any backing — they're much more likely to trust the MSN resource center than some weird site they have never heard of.

Of course, nothing is clear-cut and companies like Amazon and eBay, that have taken users from the start and evolved with them, do draw links between what one might want to call "Web 1.0" and "Web 2.0". However, these are exceptions and, even then, the fact that someone has heard of Amazon and eBay or asked their nephew, teaching assistant, friend… to order something there for them does not make them active users of a service. I know many people who order from Amazon, therefore inflating their numbers, but don't understand a single word of the supposedly "interactive" features that analysts praise. I have visited Google maps many times, again generating trafic, but have not used it a single time to look up information that has a meaning to me.

Within the "geek" circle, there without doubt is a "Web 2.0" but I believe it would be a mistake too focus on what, essentially, is only a fraction of the Internet population. While the new generation of services may announce something great for the web at large, I am afraid we are forgetting about the billions of people who are leaving the Internet because of essential problems that are still not solved.


2005-10-02 07:46:29
Web 2.0 is a modest, but useful insight
Users of Amazon and eBay are automaticaly active users of the service. An Amazon buyer contributes to the popularity of a product simply by buying it. Few people post reviews, but many buyers use them so they are a vital interactive feature. Most users don't have to think, or even know about it for it to happen and that's exactly as it should be. The same with Google. Web sites contribute to the page rank system simply by existing. The cluelessness of users when it comes to what their contribution is and how it happens is a feature, not a bug.

Many Web 2.0 services are used by a small minority, it's true. However Wikipedia is already in the top 100 web sites, and is steadily climbing towards the top 10. Still, many of th most popular, name-recognition services on the web do take advantage of Web 2.0 concepts, and do so in an invisibly seamless fashion. The mere fact that users don't know it's happening doesn't make those features irrelevent, in fact it makes them more powerful.

2005-10-02 11:20:40
Web 2.0 is a modest, but useful insight
Hi again!

You are right in pointing out that users of Amazon and eBay are automatically "active" participants to some extent. Nevertheless, one has to wonder to which extent the popularity of a product really matters in the purchase decision and whether the features for which Amazon is praised aren't the more esoteric ones. Tailoring a website silently to better meet a user's supposed needs is an honorable goal but how many users do look at it? What percentage of Amazon or eBay users head other directly to the search box to type in the title of the book, CD or DVD they are interested in purchasing?

The transparency of Page Rank, in a similar way, is a great system that allows the search engine to steadily improve without user participation. Then, one needs to ask whether the "improvements" in the algorithm really bring real world improvements for users. Google excels at what it does but is what it does what most users want?

I do not think that a transparent feature is irrelevant and agree with you that, the more seamless something can be, the more efficient it is. However, most users couldn't care less about all the features that are offered to them. While we geeks may be tempted to see Amazon's success as the sign of a successful Web 2.0 implementation, it probably has a lot more to do with their advertising on buses and being mentioned in national newspapers.


2005-10-02 14:04:39
I think Web 2.0 is too generalized
The main problem in my mind is that Web 2.0 tries to talk about everything at once - about all those billions of web pages, all the myriad companies building solutions around the web, all the technologies sprouting around it, etc. The amount of things it tries to encompass (and make generalized statements about) is absolutely massive.

In that sense, I feel like "Web 2.0" sounds like "World 2.0" or 'Economy 2.0' - that is, it's like it tries to take everything going on in the world and come up with one word/phrase for it. At that point, "Web 2.0" is just another word for "change". (Albeit catchier.) We talk about paradigm shifts, but the problem is that the web is too big to wholly or even mostly subscribe to one paradigm, and thus the whole web cannot very well shift paradigms.

You raise the point of if the web is undergoing a revolution, or just evolving. Well, I think it's both, depending on what specific aspect of the 'web' you're referring to. And therein, IMHO, lies the problem. If you can't define something, there is obviously no way to discuss about it. (Except to discuss how to define it. :-)

What I don't understand is, why does everything have to be spoken of in sweeping statements about entire industries? Why can't we just talk about specific changes in specific markets? After all, I don't think it's fair to say that there is one, specific, underlying change that is orchastrating everything going on in the world of the web. I just don't feel that things are that simple these days.

In that sense, I think the better thing to do would be to focus more clearly on the paradigm shifts happening in various areas. WebApps 2.0, Blogging 2.0, Messaging 2.0, etc. These would be easier to define, easier to grasp, and easier to talk about.

I think the tech industry has just gotten too focused on a 'next big thing' mentality, continuously looking for some David to topple the current Goliath in the industry or to fundamentally reshape the technologies we work with, and I personally am starting to tune all that out. I don't need to be 'excited' into reading something, I just need to know if this new tool is stable and will do what I need/want it to do. It doesn't need to be "next gen", it just needs to work. :)

2005-10-02 14:43:11
I think Web 2.0 is too generalized

I entirely agree with you that, before discussing of a topic, one needs to precisely define it and that this precise definition is lacking in "Web 2.0" or the "Internet" in general.

I also agree that constant hype, far from doing any good, can cause some severe damage by focusing our attention on the wrong thing (what will the next revolution be) instead of on the needs of today (will a tool work).


2005-11-02 11:12:49
Wiki fiddling and Geo wanking
This masturbation meme isn't new. The map guys call it "Geo wanking" and I hear "Wiki fiddling" and "Wiki wanking" used more and more.

Some great discussion of here (http://www.theregister.com/2005/10/19/web_two_point_nowt_letters/) and here (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/07/six_things_about_the_bubble/) and from Russell Beattie here (http://www.russellbeattie.com/notebook/1008665.html) . I guess if you're a Perl guy the web must seem really revolutionary - but from outside it just doesn't look that innovative or exciting.