Web 2.0: Past, Present, and Future

Four years have passed since Tim O’Reilley and his pals famously started endorsing the new era of the Internet: Web 2.0. Some people got excited, some got sceptical, commenting “Isn’t it just a marketing buzzword?” Looking back, I think we were all missing the point by asking that question, because everybody knew something was happening. The right question could have been: “Does Web 2.0 describe accurately what is going on?”

The way we interacted with the Internet had been changing — it was getting much “closer” to our physical life — and we needed a word to describe it, because we weren’t only excited about the change; we were also scared of it (I believe that was why some people tried to blush it off as a buzzword). Web 2.0 might not have captured the tangible details of the changes we were experiencing, but it worked perfectly as a blanket term, capturing the “feeling” we had.

But again, four years, which amounts to a generation in the Internet, have passed. Let’s take a closer look at Web 2.0; what it was about and how it has evolved into the current Internet we have (I name it Web 2.5).

Web 2.0: From viewing to using

Web 2.0 largely described the transition in how we interact with the Internet from “viewing” to “using”. The Web 1.0 usage (viewing) was summarized in this phrase, “surf the web”, that described how we initially interacted with the Internet. Users moved from one website to another, viewing static images and texts, just like a surfer riding along waves of information. Was it fun? Maybe yes. But the whole interaction was largely about receiving existing information. If there was any interaction between the user and the web, it was downloading files and photos; still, a passive activity.

Then slowly, we started to go deeper: uploading files, writing comments, and even chatting with our friends. Yes, the technology for interaction existed long before Web 2.0 caught our attention. I remember playing deathmatch games online using Doom (to get away from the pressure of thesis writing), and it was 1994. But we had to wait until the dot-com bubble and its burst for the interaction to become widely available, and for users to become aware of the power they had in their hands.

Thanks to a handful of companies and online communities that survived the dot-com bubble, “interacting” with the web started to creep in to our online activities. Instead of just viewing, we searched using Google, shopped using Amazon, exchanged using Craigslist, and contributed using WikiPedia. That is what Web 2.0 is about: from viewing to interacting.

Here I summarize what I believe are characteristics of Web 2.0.

  • From passive to aggressive: As I explained in the previous paragraphs, users no longer just sit there and click the Next/Back button. Interaction, not viewing, is the new way to communicate on the Internet. Welcome back, Mr. Keyboard.
  • User-contributed content: Add user reviews to Amazon, trackback or comment on a blog, Edit some lines in Wikipedia… the degree of contribution varies but users take siginifant roles in content creation.
  • From installation to registration: Desktop application is so Web 1.0. Welcome to the online service era, where users no longer need to fill the system administrator’s role….well, this was the promise of “Web 2.0 companies”, anyhow. We know the reality took a different road, but that will be discussed in the next paragraph.
  • Free is the beginning, not the end: Make something users want, increase your community, then figure our how to make a profit. That is the business model what Google and countless other companies followed.

Web2.5: From using to living in

Now what? What has changed since 2005? The answer might be everything, if we focus on the specifications and features of the Internet, and nothing, if we take a step back and glance at the overall trend. Interaction is the norm, it hasn’t changed at all, has it?

I believe an important trend, which did not receive much attention back in 2005, has been emerging: the “community” experience realized by social networks and post-Web 2.0 applications, including Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter.

In these applications, we all create our online persona and broadcast our activities inside the community or to the external world. What is special about these applications? Answer: users themselves are the content, as opposed to users interacting with the content. The service provider only prepares the framework: user interface, registration scheme, widgets, and so on. We can argue that social networks are virtual realities minus 3D graphical projections (and audio).

Otherwise, have things changed? Here I summarize how characteristics of Web 2.0 has evolved to today’s Internet, Web 2.5 as I call.

  • From aggressive to passive-aggressive: We will never go back to the silent view era, but we are also not pushing the “aggressive” interaction too further. A Tech Crunch article summarizes the recent trend of mixturing static (passive) and dynamic (aggressive) communication into one service (i.e. the way we communicate in real life), as in Google Wave.
  • User-created content: Especially in social networks, users are no longer mere “contributers.” In many cases, they create all of the content, including the “old” Web2.0 organizations: Craigslist, Wikipedia, etc.
  • Registration and installation: Did everything move from desktop to online, eliminating standalone software packages? Well, no. Some people say it is a matter of time, but for the time being, desktop applications and web applications live together. The broadband got wider, but also CPUs and memories got faster and bigger. What really has become “online” is software distribution: now it is hard to find any software that cannot be bought online for download.
  • Free is the beginning and the end: What happened to the “how to make money” discussion? None of the social networks are charging money to users who only access to basic functionalities. They charge money to users who wants to do something extra; in other words, the “collect money from everybody (eventually)” mantra has been replaced by “collect money from heavy users (encourage everybody to become them, eventually).”

Let’s go back to the “community” aspect on Web 2.0 (or 2.5). Regarding this topic, I am especially interested in how we create and manage our online persona for online communities (online identity). In other words, I am wondering why we behave differently online than in offline and do not feel (too) strange about it.
Personally, I am seeing notable difference between my online and offline persona, as follows:

  • I am more social online than offline.
  • I am more talkative online than offline.
  • I am more humorous online than offline.
  • I have more acquaintances online than offline.

For example, in my Facebook and during my chat, I frequently hug my friends, send them gifts, invite them to events, all of which I seldom do in my offline world. As I observe my friends, I see similar patterns; looks like everybody behaves “differently” online. The scary part is, we all behave consistently (with integrity) online, as if we were born that way. I have even acquired a habit of ditching my pre-formed idea when I meet my online friends in real-life for the first time.

I am not sure where this split-persona behavior goes. Maybe we fuse the online and offline persona, maybe we will comfortably live with multiple personality. I haven’t found a good resource on the Internet discussing this split personality issue yet…