How Simplicity and Transparency Are Building Web 2.0
A White Paper commissioned by Jay Collier and written by Chris Boone — 12/2005
The new generation of Web technologies — Web 2.0 — is an advance in technologies: We have more tools available to us; they are simpler, more transparent, and more flexible than ever before. They allow us to do more on the Web than we ever could before. From those technologies emerge new methods of creating and interacting with content. And from those new methods emerge new communities and new forms of community.
The new technologies themselves are simple. Creating a free blog is as simple as choosing a name; posting an article is as simple as clicking “Post.”
Their simplicity lowers the barrier to publishing, and to finding what others have published, and to responding to that work. This makes it easy to go from idea to published idea; from published idea to feedback; from feedback to collaboration; from collaboration to new idea.
Transparency and Flexibility
Web 2.0 technologies are also marked by a high level of transparency and flexibility. That allows for easy integration of one technology with another. This is key: The Web 2.0 tools don’t just allow you to communicate well with your audience — they communicate well amongst themselves.
Easy integration of one technology with another allows for new authoring possibilities. You can build here on work you’ve done there, without duplicating your efforts or your results. And I can build on your work, you on mine, and we can work together.
This transparency also facilitates the dissemination and location of content. Since the content is more visible, its audience is broadened. The audience can then, in turn, respond to it and interact with it. Web 2.0 is marked by a blurring of the distinction between content producer and content consumer.
Categorization and Valuation
To go along with the new methods of authorship, we need new methods of sorting and valuing. In the same ways that the means of production are simplified, made transparent, and integrated, the means of categorizing and valuing have been updated.
The new method is referred to as tagging, or folksonomy. Tagging is novel in that it allows for categorization and valuation by the consumer, and not just by the producer. Which is to say, the audience, while in the very act of consuming, categorizes the content and assesses its value. Each consumer responds directly to what she reads, and those responses aggregate into something potentially more meaningful than just one person’s thoughts.
Delicious Tag: University
From these varied acts of creation and feedback and collaboration and categorization and valuation emerge communities of producers and consumers.
Simple groups, both passive and active, emerge first.
On Flickr, the social photo sharing site, groups emerge spontaneously. I tag — I label, that is, in a non-hierarchical fashion — a photo of the Green with the word ‘Dartmouth.’ You tag a photo of an old friend with the word ‘Dartmouth.’ Our photos are automatically linked, for anyone to see, by this tag in common. Anyone who wants can look at all the photos on Flickr tagged with the words ‘Dartmouth’ and ‘College.’ Both our photos will be there, along with a wide range of others.
From that passive group can come active groups. I see that other people are tagging photos with ‘Dartmouth,’ and I then create what Flickr calls a pool — which is a formalized, non-generated group — for Dartmouth photos. You see that I’ve done so, and you join. We’ve now formalized our relationship; and a new group has emerged.
The process continues. I upload more photos and continue to tag them. Some of my tags are new, and so my use of them creates a space into which content may grow. Some of my tags are already in use, and so I add that content to a pre-existing space. I join another pool; others join my Dartmouth pool. I comment on other people’s photos; people comment on mine. While browsing your contacts, I find a photo that I love, and so I mark it as a favorite of mine.
From all these activities, bonds are formed: Some strong, some weak; some long-lasting, some transient; some interesting, some not; but all of them real, and all of them emergent from the simple act of posting some photos on the Web. And from these actions, finally, comes a community.
The new technologies allow these emergent communities to reach out beyond their original domain.
For example, you might set up a site that displays all the photos in Flickr’s ‘Dartmouth College’ pool and updates itself automatically.
This is possible, since Flickr makes available all public photos through feeds. A feed is simply a simplified, standardized, and more flexible means of making content available. You can track a feed in a program, either on your desktop or on the Web, called a feed reader; other programs can take feeds and make use of the content they contain, integrating it with other content, modifying it, re-interpreting it, and so on.
Your site that displays all photos tagged with ‘Dartmouth’ could also pull in Hanover’s weather forecast, news items that reference ‘Dartmouth,’ weblog entries that reference ‘Dartmouth’, posts from local blogs, and aggregate it all to create a new work — a sort of dashboard for Hanover.
In addition to passively aggregating and displaying information pulled in from other sites, the dashboard could be extended so that it accesses other sites’ data and functionality.
More and more sites make APIs available for public use. An API — an Application Programming Interface — is another, lower-level, means of interacting with the site and its content. If you want to find out where an address is, you can go to the Google Maps site and enter it and find out. Or your Web site can use the Google Maps API to query the Google Maps servers directly to find out the precise location of the address, to display a map of it, to find driving directions from it — all the tasks that Google Maps can perform. And all those tasks can be integrated directly into your Web site.
Not only that, but you can use the Google Maps API to enhance the other data on the site. If the dashboard pulls in event information from Dartmouth, it can map the location of each event by calling Google Maps. In that way, it moves beyond the simple recombinatory form of the dashboard-as-feed-aggregator, and allows for the creation of substantially new content.
The Web was made famous largely for its ability to empower producers and consumers. Web 2.0 will be known for its ability to connect the two and make them the same.
Continuum of Consumption to Production
There’s a continuum now that ranges from simple interaction to full-blown community. That continuum is supported by the new technologies. People start on one end — authoring and publishing content — and move toward the other — responding to other people’s work, interacting with it, creating new content based on it, integrating it with their own, and so on. Communities emerge along the way.
Web 2.0 and the Social Web
The advance in technologies that supports this movement along the continuum is what we call Web 2.0. The community end of the continuum is the Social Web.
The Social Web is both what is emerging from those technologies and what is impelling their creation and refinement. The Web 2.0 tools allow us to interact with each other in new ways; those interactions, and the communities that arise from them, form the Social Web.
If the Web is the aggregate of the content available through HTTP and other protocols, the Social Web is the aggregate of the communities formed around that content. And if the Web 2.0 technologies enhance our abilities to create and interact with that content, they will likewise enhance our abilities to create and interact with those communities.