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You can tell that a concept has been become truly fashionable when it comes to the notice of the general (paper-based) press. ‘Web 2.0’ has got there, which is why it is time to pick it to bits. Not as a kneejerk ‘cut the tall poppy’ reaction, but because for most website owners and managers, it is not very helpful. Time to take the best bits, I think, and make them comprehensible.
What is wrong with ‘Web 2.0’? Perhaps I should ask first ‘What is Web 2.0?’ because it has much the same answer. Looking at Wikipedia, a child of the concept to which I will return, the definition starts: ‘Web 2.0, a phrase coined by O’Reilly Media in 2004, refers to a supposed second-generation of Internet-based services - such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies - that let people collaborate and share information online in previously unavailable ways.’
Just under this, however, seven ‘key principles’ are summarised, closely followed by six definitions of Web 2.0 ‘as used by its proponents’. Trouble is, most of these 13 statements have nothing to do with each other: the definition I have quoted above is a brave attempt to pull them together (if you can cope with the jargon), but actually it leaves most of the concepts out. And if you cannot define something, does it exist?
I have another, semantic-pedantic, moan. People like me spent the first few years of the internet’s life trying to convince the real world that it was not about technology, any more than television was about technology: its importance was as another communications medium. Then these people come along and start talking about Web 2.0, a clear transfer from technical phraseology. Bother them, I say.
Enough of the griping. Web 2.0 did not get all the publicity it has without having some really useful ideas in it. Looking with the eyes of a website owner, rather than a technology buff, let’s pick out the best.
The key concept, it seems to me, is that site owners needs to look ever further beyond their own efforts. A company will have a website, or maybe dozens or even hundreds of sites. These are - should be - under its control, and its job is to make its web presence as effective as it can be (for hints refer to my previous 200 columns). But beyond this are the bits of the web that it can barely influence but that affect it - blogs, social networking sites, wikis, and so on. We have returned to the most interesting bits of ‘Web 2.0’.
The internet has acted as a community for a long time. Newsgroups were not on the web, but became busy meeting places. Some web-based communities have quietly flourished for years. Look at the Stephen King forum at Simon & Schuster (www.simonsays.com), with its 402,000 posts. What blogs did was to allow anyone with a little skill and, more importantly, time to set up a discussion area. They also encouraged the idea that anyone could be an author as well as a reader. Social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube took this on, with authorship spreading to videos as well words. Wikis - sites that can be edited by anyone - were another development in this great expansion of user-generated content.
The latest step on the same path - very familiar to my children but just discovered by suited grown-ups, and me - is the virtual world. Second Life does not even run in a web browser, though it is accessed through it (www.secondlife.com). It lets us all run around as digital beings, or avatars, and - this is why there is so much excitement - use it to make real money. I read that Wells Fargo has its own island and Toyota has launched a car in Second Life. As I am still trying to get the facial hair right on my avatar, I haven’t investigated yet.
What we need now is a phrase that encapsulates the concept that a company has digital areas it controls, and also those it does not. I drew a diagram to visualise it, and it looked like frogspawn. I’m not sure that will catch on (though maybe Frogspawn 2.0 would?). So for the moment I will call it the extended web.
There are ways in which companies can contribute directly to their extended webs. By writing or contributing to blogs, by editing their entry in Wikipedia, and of course by busying themselves in Second Life. But they will be outsiders: individuals do not want corporations muscling in on these spaces, any more than early web people wanted them occupying the internet. Wal-Mart set up its own social networking site, the Hub, and it is has closed. Wal-Mart says it was only supposed to be temporary; bloggers do not believe it. And there those who say that ‘corporate blog’ is an oxymoron. I am inclined to agree with them.
That is not say that companies should do nothing but observe. They should not rush in to defend their reputations in blogs, they should certainly not try to follow Wal-Mart to its hub of doom. What they can do is to get the individuals out there - the masses who own the extended web - doing their work for them. All these sites work by the digital equivalent of word of mouth: if something is worth spreading, it will be spread, probably at remarkable speed. This is of course viral marketing - there is, as I should have said before, nothing so new in all of this.
In my last column I said that politicians will only get their content passed around by the inhabitants of social networking sites if it is good, very good. The same is true of businesses. If something is good enough, whether it is a video, a Flash animation or a fine piece of writing, it will be picked up and thrown around the digital universe - even if it is produced by an evil corporation. Quality will out, or at least get out and about on the extended web.