What Web 2.0 Means

I’m not much of a joiner. I’m not saying I’m too good for it. I just don’t take to it naturally.

So I tend to be a little Johnny-come-lately to the fresh stuff the cool kids are doing.

For example, when I kept seeing “Web 2.0” mentioned a while back, I didn’t really think about it much, I thought maybe I’d misunderstood … since Verizon was telling me my phone could now do Wap 2.0, I wondered if it had something to do with that?

See? I’m the guy at the party who was lost in thought (wondering why the ficus in the corner looks like Karl Marx if you squint just right) and looks up after everybody’s finished laughing at something and saying, “what was that again?”

So, when I finally realize what the hype is, I tend to already be a little contrary, if only to rescue my pride. (Oh, well, that wasn’t such a funny joke anyway, I’ll go back to squinting at the ficus, thank you.)

After a while, though, I started realizing that Web 2.0 is a lot like the Mirror of Erised in the first Harry Potter novel. People look into it and see what they want to see, but it’s really just a reflection of their own desires. They look around at others and assume they all see the same thing. (This is just the first example I could think of for this trope: a common one in literature and especially in science fiction.)

People can go on for quite a while assuming they’re seeing the same thing, before realizing that there’s a divergence.

I’ve seen this happen in projects at work many times, in fact. A project charter comes out, and several stakeholders have their own ideas in their heads about what it “means” — sometimes it takes getting halfway through the project before it dawns on some of them that there are differences of opinion. On occasion they’ll assume the others have gone off the mark, rather than realizing that nobody was on the same mark to begin with.

I’m not wanting to completely disparage the Web 2.0 meme, only to be realistic about it. Unlike the Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards) Web 2.0 is just a term, not even an object. So it lends itself especially well to multiple interpretations.

A couple of weeks ago, this post by Nicholas Carr went up: The amorality of Web 2.0. It’s generated a lot of discussion. Carr basically tries to put a pin in the inflated bubble of exuberance around the dream of the participation model. He shows how Wikipedia isn’t actually all that well written or accurate, for example. He takes to task Kevin Kelly’s Wired article (referenced in my blog a few days ago) about the new dawning age of the collectively wired consciousness.

I think it’s important to be a devil’s advocate about this stuff when so many people are waxing religiously poetic (myself included at times). I wondered if Carr really understood what he was talking about at certain points — for example, doing a core sample of Wikipedia and judging the quality of the whole based on entries about Bill Gates and Jane Fonda sort of misses the point of what Wikipedia does in toto. (But in the comments to his post, I see he recognizes a difference between value and quality, and that he understands the problems around “authority” of texts.) Still, it’s a useful bit of polemic. One thing it helps us do is remember that the ‘net is only what we make it, and that sitting back and believing the collective conscious is going to head into nirvana without any setbacks or commercial influence is dangerously naive.

At any rate, all we’re doing with all this “Web 2.0” talk is coming to the realization that 1) the Web isn’t about a specific technology or model of browsing, but that all these methods and technologies will be temporary or evolved very quickly, and that 2) it’s not, at its core, really about buying crap and looking things up — it’s about connecting people with other people.

So I guess my problem with the term “Web 2.0” is that it’s actually about more than the Web. It’s about internetworking that reduces the inertia of time and space and creates new modes of civilization. Not utopian modes — just new ones. (And not even, really, that completely new — just newly global, massive and immediate for human beings.) And it’s not about “2.0” but about “n” where “n” is any number up to infinity.

But then again, I’m wrong. I can’t tell people what “Web 2.0” means because what it means is up to the person thinking about it. Because Web 2.0 is, after all, a sign or cypher, an avatar, for whatever hopes and dreams people have for infospace. On an individual level, it represents what each person’s own idiosyncratic obsessions might be (AJAX for one person, Wiki-hivemind for the next). And on a larger scale, for the community at large, it’s a shorthand way of saying “we’re done with the old model, we’re ready for a new one.” It’s a realization that, hey, it’s bigger and stranger than we realized. It’s also messy, and a real mix of mediocrity and brilliance. Just like we are.

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