Where's the real web 2.0?

Quocirca's Straight Talking: It's more rehash than revolution

Quocirca's Straight Talking: It's more rehash than revolution

Web 2.0 is a description that's slapped onto just about everything these days. Rob Bamforth hunts for technological approaches that might truly be worthy of the name.

Web 2.0 is such a broad term that it has become overused and widely misapplied. One can't help wondering whether most of the concepts web 2.0 is used to describe aren't really more web 1.1.

Generally people agree that web 2.0 describes a more interactive and democratic internet where anyone can easily create anything to share with anyone else.

Those with something to get off their chest can blog. Those who want to let others know what they're doing can twitter. And everyone can add their interpretation to a definition on a wiki. We can go further, sharing experiences, images and videos with everyone, or just our friends via social networking sites.

Enthusiasts will say that with more input from a wider set of contributors, the content produced is more timely, real or accurate. There is no doubt there is now more digitised data. With some structure we could also say it is useful information but has it evolved into wisdom from the crowd? Often it is difficult to tell fact from opinion.

Web 1.0 is often derided as no more than organisations putting brochures or existing content online. But much of this content would have been produced by traditional, rigorous publication and editing processes.

These processes may have had some inefficiencies, bottlenecks and limitations, but structure and organised workflow can be useful and there is no reason to assume that the noise of the crowd is the only game in town. In fact, quite the contrary. Frequently the contributions of the crowd are simply the hubris of a vocal minority.

For a second generation, web 2.0 also seems a little slow with significant latency inherent in the processes. Content is uploaded and then contacts, friends or colleagues have to be notified or have to be sufficiently adept to be using a syndication service.

Much of the ensuing collaboration is serial, with blog threads and social forums looking like the newsgroups of the 1990s and bulletin boards of an earlier generation - hardly immediate or interactive. And there's always a risk that errors made at the start will propagate, and corrections made later either get lost in the noise or misconstrue the meaning of the original comments.

Wikis and social networking sites create an element of more parallel interactivity but most of the interaction is delivered by looking regularly at web pages and this ties those contributing to a PC screen and a desk or laptop.

Evenings in front of the PC might be a fun social experience for some but many find it limiting and look to get further digital social contact during the working day. As you would expect, this doesn't go down too well with many employers.

Content is hailed a king but given the potential for anyone to produce anything in any digital media, whatever their artistic ability or quality, how will it be possible to sort wheat from chaff? Proponents of web 2.0 would say this is self-regulating with feedback, endorsements and recommendations.

Given the simplicity of artificially generating comment, validity is hard to gauge. So we may end up finding it even harder to sort healthy wheat from diseased chaff with an overload of spam feedback, endorsements and recommendations.

There are also content police - companies with a deliberate policy of searching for negative comments and getting them removed - and those that go even further and turn web 2.0 into marketing propaganda 2.0.

Finding real value in content and services may not matter in the early days of growth where success is measured by numbers of names in the address book but as eBay has found with Skype this value is ephemeral, and commercialisation requires the offer of services that customers will value, use and ultimately pay for.

So what approaches would truly justify a web 2.0 designation? They would need to demonstrate a return to more focused technology - bringing context, relevance, and personalisation. That means reaching the individual with content, services and contacts of value at the right moment and at a specific location.

It's the chance to plait the long tail of content into specific strands of relevance, and condense the social networks of friends into the segmented social groups, clubs and teams we all really belong to, with direct access from the communications gadgets in the palms of our hands.

It does mean exerting some control over the process, so that it generates valid, accurate and timely results that have value to the individual.

Off the desktop and into the pocket, web 2.0 should be user-centric and mobile, not simply user-generated. That's only one step on the way.