Defining Web 2.0

I happened to mention 'Web 2.0' just as we were pulling up at a stop light and, much to my surprise, she said to me, "What's that?" I had to come up with a definition before the lights turned green.

Someone asked me the other day for my definition of Web 2.0, assuming that I must have published one somewhere, and I realized that I never have. What I have noticed, though, is that I can be having conversations with people about Web 2.0 in which I realize that we're each talking about completely different aspects of the phenomenon. We might as well be talking about two entirely separate concepts. Except that it's a replay of the old Indian folklore tale of the blind men and the elephant. They each grabbed a separate part of the animal and defined it in terms of what they were holding onto, without realizing that each part contributed to a greater whole. So I started to think about how I personally would define it.

Then,I have problems with Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0 to cap it all, I was chatting to my wife at the weekend and happened to mention 'Web 2.0' just as we were pulling up at a stop light and, much to my surprise, she said to me, "What's that?" That was a bit of an eye-opener, considering that my wife is as web-wise as any modern professional woman. And yet she genuinely had never come across this term that looms so large in my professional life. What's more, I had to come up with a definition before the lights turned green. Here's what I said:

"Web 2.0? It's about using the Web collaboratively — sharing and mixing up information and resources — so moving on from the first generation of the Web, which was more about using websites just to publish content and sell things."

We turned off and went down the gradient towards the parking lot, so I decided to elaborate since I had another couple hundred yards to play with.

"It's stuff like blogs and wikis." I hesitated. "I guess that's a new word too: a wiki lets people team up to edit web pages and build out a web site. Wikipedia's the best known example, you've come across that. Mashups are a big part of it, too."

I knew I was pushing my luck there with mashups, but I was about to pull up to the ticket machine. So now I had to define mashups.

"A mashup is where you mix up data or actions from different websites — like hooking up property listings with Google maps to show where they are, for example, although that was quite an early one; they're starting to get a lot more sophisticated now."

And then we had to find a parking space and get the kids to their class so that was the end of the conversation, but I felt I'd just about covered it.

I was helped out by having read Dan Farber writing up Tim Berners-Lee's recent dismissal of Web 2.0 as "a piece of jargon". He's right, of course: the Web always was about collaboration, and if anything Web 2.0 is just the world catching up with what Berners-Lee always understood the Web to be from the outset.

No doubt he would be equally impatient with Tim O'Reilly's compact definition of Web 2.0 as "the network as platform," as once again stating what should have been obvious right from the start.

I have another problem with Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0 (even though I have to grant him first-mover advantage, as the original co-inventor of the term), which is that I felt his What is Web 2.0 article of a year ago puts too much emphasis on mixing up data and not enough on mixing up processes. Perhaps I'm benefitting from hindsight there, since mashups were still just emerging at that time, but I've always felt that ownership of the data itself is less important than how you use it. And I think the emergence of mashups reinforces the importance of putting collaboration center stage in the definition, along with the rider that this is collaboration in every imaginable sense of the word (including some that haven't yet been invented).

The other thing I liked about Dan Farber's item was his sideswipe that, if Web 2.0 has taken ten years to evolve, then "by 2015 we will have Web 3.0." That's exactly what I've been saying. Web 2.0 is just a label to help those of us who are not Tim Berners-Lee get a handle on how the Web is currently evolving, and we should certainly expect it to have evolved into something even more empowering and awesome in another ten years' time.

UPDATE: [added Sep 15] Dion Hinchcliffe has written a very thoughtful follow-up piece, Finding Web 2.0, which does a great job of setting out how we got to where we are with the Web. His conclusion about collective intelligence echoes what I was alluding to in my statement above that Web 2.0 is about "collaboration in every imaginable sense of the word." To really understand Web 2.0 (or rather what is happening with the Web today, whatever you want to call it) you have to think beyond today's social software fads and start imagining new combinations of interactions between people, software and data, at every level of scale from individual to global.