The way to exploit a medium is to understand it

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I have been bleating for ages about how much I dislike the expression “Web 2.0”. Time to be positive now: or rather time to extract the useful bits and express them in plain English.

What’s wrong with “Web 2.0”? It doesn’t mean anything for a start – I won’t delay you with the details, but try reading the opening few paragraphs of its entry in Wikipedia. If you don’t get confused by that, you are probably not reading it carefully enough. Then there is the ‘2.0’ pseudo-software tag; this at a time when we are trying to convince people that the web is no more to do with technology than television is. Perhaps most worrying, it is being used as a label to hype companies in front of gullible investors – a worrying reminder of the dotcom bubble.

But as with the bubble, there are many good things wrapped up in the hype. The trick is to extract them, label them clearly, and let investors and everyone else see what they are being offered. I’ve been trying to do this and like, like a good consultant, have come up not only with potential new buzz phrases but also a two-by-two matrix.

Much of the chat about Web 2.0 comes from technologists looking to shoehorn their inventions into one neat label. I prefer to ignore the technology and think in business terms. What are the concepts that are growing so fast, and what do they mean to people who have charge of their organisation’s online presence?

The first is that communication on the web now has a strong two-way – or horizontal - element. The traditional web is vertical, with organisations talking one way (downwards) to the rest of us. Increasingly, we now are also talking to each other. I think it’s useful here to talk of the “horizontal web” joining the “vertical web”.

Second, from the site owner’s point of view, the web is divided into areas they control and those they do not, but that effect them. These could be blogs, they could be social networking sites, but they could also be other websites. I call this the “extended web”, to contrast with the “home web” they do control.

There is nothing fundamentally superior about the horizontal or extended web. They just have different jobs from their vertical and home cousins. This is important, because there is a tendency in the Web 2.0 world to regard “new” as better than “old”. It is not; it is just adding a new dimension.

Let’s assume you are the owner of a corporate website. How does my two-by-two matrix work? The first square is the home web where communication is one way, or vertical. Your website, certainly, though this is also where podcasts live.

The second square has areas that you control (home web), but that are two way. These include your own blogs and forums.

It gets a little more complex when we move into the extended web, the areas you do not control. Here the vertical element is populated by other websites that affect you (consumer sites, for example), and also by content you have placed on other people’s sites. These include videos on YouTube, photos on Flickr, the picture-sharing site, groups you have set up or sponsored on social network sites such as Facebook; but also, less excitingly, banners ads.

The final square is the one that is most often associated with “Web 2.0”. These are the sites that you do not control, and where people talk to each other: other people’s blogs, social network pages, Wikipedia; but also more traditional forums or discussion areas.

What does all this show? It should help companies manage their online activities more rationally, and to see that it is a mistake to separate the old from the new. Separate them instead according to the way in which they should be handled. For example podcasts may seem rather modern, but actually they should be managed in the same way as the website: think of the user, work out what you want to do, and do it well.

Treat home blogs on your own site (home/horizontal) quite differently from those on external sites: the first you will need to stir up with great energy (they will die if you do not), the second you should treat with enormous caution and subtlety. Discussion groups (external/horizontal) may be old-fashioned, but they need the same treatment. Finally, looking at the external/vertical square, educate yourself. How do people use YouTube? Will a Facebook group will create more hostility than loyalty? Can you avoid a banner ad appearing somewhere embarrassing. UK companies were distraught to find their ads on Facebook appearing next to a far right party’s page. They should be distraught – but only because they had failed to research the medium properly.

And this is my main point. The way to exploit a medium is to understand it. The best way to understand something is to simplify it. It doesn’t matter whether you follow my ideas or produce your own. But don’t just follow the herd – it is heading straight towards a dangerous quagmire of confusion.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs & Co (www.bowencraggs.com). dbowen@bowencraggs.com

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