A mythological definition of Web 2.0

This blog is supposed to be about the concept that is called Web 2.0, so I suppose I had better take a stab at defining it.

This blog is supposed to be about the concept that is called Web 2.0, so I suppose I had better take a stab at defining it.

First, let's get the obvious things out of the way. Yes, it was a marketing term coined by Tim O'Reilly to sell conferences, so people who would dismiss the whole thing as rubbish for just that reason are perfectly justified. Yes, Tim himself has a technical definition which it would be folly for anyone else to try to better -- so I won't try. Go read that if you want the gobbledygook version, or hear Mike Arrington of TechCrunch give a more timely, succinct version at the start of this PBS podcast. Instead, I'll try to talk about what you might call a "social definition" of the term, meaning what it has come to mean to those who use it every day to describe what is happening now.

Also, for the sake of readability and accessibility, I will resist the temptation to break down my argument into bullet points, or to use any of the burgeoning selection of 2.0 jargon, or invent new jargon, or to mention any of the hot companies in the space.

The phrase itself suggests an iteration: an improvement over what has come before. As Tim admits, the first brainstorming over the term focused on a Tired/Wired list of old and new versions of similar concepts. Definition by example can only describe so much, though, and it assumes detailed knowledge of the examples which disenfranchises those not familiar with them. So what are we talking about? We're still talking about the Web, where people use browsers to access HTML pages via HTTP and IP. Many people have come to use the term as a simple signifier to "what we are doing now", and I wouldn't argue if that's what works for you.

Others say it is merely a more accurate delivery of the original vision of Tim Berners-Lee: "a space in which anyone could be creative, to which anyone could contribute", as opposed to being aligned more closely to the offline publishing paradigm. That is also true.

Okay, no more waffling. My compact definition of Web 2.0 is this: "technologies for human participation" *.

By that, I mean that the purpose of all of the new sites and APIs and languages and whatnot is to enable and encourage humans to participate. Whatever it is they are participating in is different for each site. I would hope my wording denotes some sort of control by those humans over their participation, since I would argue that closed, top-down systems do not encourage participation but militate against it. However, I do not mandate democratic means in that definition, because although many Web 2.0 sites do have democratic elements, several of the larger ones are encountering unresolved problems.

The definition includes the word "human" for a reason. Much focus has been put on the algorithms and equations of Web 2.0 as expressed in various patents, which I refer to in totality as "robots". The Web was not made for the benefit of the robots, it is for humans. Thus we should always remember that Web 2.0 is not all about increasing your site's rank on a search engine's ranking database, nor pasting jabberwocky into HTML templates to populate variables in a virtual spreadsheet for the benefit of soulless automata. It's about encouraging people to communicate with each other, and do everything else on the Web that society allows them to do.

When we are talking about such basic concepts, it is easy to slip into tones of pompous pontification, and for that I apologise. I am currently reading for the first time The Silmarillion, one of the companion volumes to Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, and its cosmogonical myth-making is resonating deeply. It is not difficult to envisage Tim Berners-Lee as the Ilúvatar of the Web, the creator figure whose divine plan shapes all things but who nevertheless withdraws from the universe after the act of creation and lets mere demigods strive to fulfil the world's destiny. We're merely moving from the First Age of the Web to the Second Age, where the Firstborn (i.e. the Elves, or the dot com boom generation) are giving way to the age of Men (i.e. the MySpace generation). In this scenario, Microsoft would be playing the part of the implacably evil fallen angel Melkor, and as for his successor Sauron ... it's hard not to cast Google as the most likely candidate. Some of the Web's Firstborn are finding it harder to give up Middle-Earth and fade into the West as they should, but more on that in future posts.

The most striking part of the book I have read so far is contained in an explanatory letter Tolkien sent to his publisher detailing the back story which would eventually be collated as The Silmarillion. At the end of the Second Age, the downfall of the human nation of Númenor "brings on the catastrophic end, not only of the Second Age, but also of the Old World, the primeval world of legend (envisaged as flat and bounded)". Before this time the continent containing Middle-Earth was surrounded by a sea which itself was bounded by a Void. After this time, the world is round and sailors can sail around that ocean to reach the opposite side of the single continent of Eä, The World That Is. This is an obvious nod to the time in humanity's history where the spherical nature of Earth was discovered, putting a lie to the assumptions of flat-earthers ... but instead of the belief system of Man being the thing that is changed, it is the very "reality" of Middle-Earth that is altered by history.

This is the sort of reality changing conceptual breakthrough which I believe is part of the mythology of Web 2.0. There is a feeling that we are building up to something, that things are changing as we blog. Things are changing because we blog.

Having said that, I don't subscribe to the myth of the Singularity. The crossover is more accurate with the Baudrillardian map-is-reality philosophy of the Matrix. We're drawing our own maps and they are becoming reality, one Web site at a time.

* At the time I wrote this, a Google of that phrase produced exactly zero results. I wonder how much that will change over time?