Web 2.0: What Is It Really?

I’ve noticed a slightly funny but disturbing trend lately: all my clients want something called “Web 2.0.” Maybe you’ve noticed it, too. People aren’t happy with a just site anymore. Now they want it sprinkled with magic fairy Web 2.0 pixie dust before they’re happy.

Who can blame them? It’s next to impossible to have a discussion about the Web these days without someone invoking Web 2.0. Popular media, blogs, trade pubs, and technology magazines: are all talking about a revolution we’re supposedly in the midst of.

Unfortunately, nobody has any idea what it is.

Really. They don’t. Poll your office and I’m sure you’ll get more answers than you’ve got colleagues. Ask your clients to define it when they raise the topic. You’ll get a lot of foot-shuffling, throat-clearing, and hemming and hawing. Ask your Web-savvy friends or resident experts. The savviest may be able to point you to the now-famous Tim O’Reilly definition, but I’ll bet you an actual American dollar that nobody can really distill down what ol’ Tim means.

I’ve tried this myself and know it to be true. My friend and colleague Claire Rusko-Berger attempted this experiment with her class of Web professionals and got the same result. Heck, you can see for yourself if you head on over to Digg or Google and try searching “Web 2.0 definitions.” Try not to blow coffee out of your nose when you read the answers.

“But that’s not fair!” you may be protesting.” Everyone knows what it is. It’s about social networking, user-generated content, glowing drop-shadowed logos, blogs, AJAX, mashups, and tagging. It’s the next revolution on the Web!”


The biggest mistake most of the tech press, Web 2.0 boosters, cyber pundits, and digital hipsters make is to confuse Web 2.0 products with the root changes that made them happen. Social networking, crowd-sourced content, blogs, and the like are the result of an ongoing mind shift that’s been happening for the past couple of years. Web 2.0 is real, but it’s not something you can define by tossing out examples or buzzwords. It’s not something we can only know when we see it. Slate’s Paul Boutin makes a good point when he declares, “The new Internet boom doesn’t live up to its name.” But he’s right for the wrong reasons. Problem is, buzzwords are overshadowing the real, important changes going on.

So what is Web 2.0? Here are six elements that define the change in how we all think about and use the Web:

  • Web 2.0 is about data abstraction. All those Web 2.0 functions people love to talk about, such as tagging, sharing, XML, open APIs (define), and mashups, only became possible because we now understand how to free information from containers. Though the Web credo “information wants to be free” has been around for a while, we’ve only recently been able to make it happen. Pulling information out of proprietary containers allows you to do pretty much whatever you want with it, whether driving collaborative sites, interfacing with mobile devices, or something else.
  • Web 2.0 takes broadband and Moore’s Law for granted. Sites like YouTube and Google Docs & Spreadsheets wouldn’t be possible in a non-broadband world populated by powerful computers. All Web 2.0’s multimedia features, especially video, start with the assumption bandwidth is basically free and readily accessible.
  • Web 2.0 is about connections. Connections between people, between sites, between the Web and mobile worlds, between buyers and sellers. Web 2.0 includes all of them. At its heart, the new Web is about moving from a one-to-many publishing model to a many-to-many one.
  • The Web 2.0 revolution puts people first. All the tagging, social content, social networking, blogging, and virtual communities people point to as examples of Web 2.0 come out of this. It’s perhaps the most widely recognized aspect of what’s changing. But putting people first is more than just connecting them or allowing them to post content. It’s also understanding people use the Web. The needs of the user (not the programmer, marketing director, or information architect) come first.
  • Web 2.0 is about allowing people to manipulate data, not just retrieve data. The AJAX revolution isn’t that it lets you make zippy interfaces that kind of look like real desktop applications in a browser. It’s that it does away with the old Web 1.0 model of request page/get page/view page technology all of us were used to. Contrast the old MapQuest “point and zoom and pan with buttons” interface with the revolutionary interface Google Maps deploys. All of a sudden, we’re actually in there with the data, moving it around, playing with it, and interacting with it in real time.
  • Web 2.0 is about doing stuff on the Web that can’t done in any other medium. Functionalities that have generated so much Web 2.0 hype are all things that wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. Period. Much of Web 1.0 tried to shoehorn old media models into the new technology, often with bad or even disastrous results. All the bad thinking of the past decade or so revolved around the misperception that the Web is “like medium X, only different.” The Web isn’t TV with clicking. It isn’t print with the ability to link and embed multimedia content. Podcasting isn’t radio you can download.

You get the idea. To truly do Web 2.0, you must do something that absolutely can not be done without the Web.

It’s as simple as that.

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