Riding the Waves of “Web 2.0”
More than a buzzword, but still not easily defined
By Mary Madden and Susannah Fox Pew Internet Project October 5, 2006 “Web 2.0” has become a catch-all buzzword that people use to describe a wide range of online activities and applications, some of which the Pew Internet & American Life Project has been tracking for years. As researchers, weinstinctively reach for our spreadsheets to see if there is evidence to inform the hype about any online trend. What follows is a short history of the phrase, along with some data to help frame the discussion. Let’s get a few things clear right off the bat: 1) Web 2.0 does not have anything to do with Internet2: 2) Web 2.0 is not a new and improved internet network operating on a separate backbone: and3) It is OK if you’ve heard the term and nodded in recognition, without having the faintest idea of what it really means. When the term emerged in 2004 (coined by Dale Dougherty and popularized by O’Reilly Media and MediaLive International),1 it provided a useful, if imperfect, conceptual umbrella under which analysts, marketers and other stakeholders in the tech field could huddle the newgeneration of internet applications and businesses that were emerging to form the “participatory Web” as we know it today: Think blogs, wikis, social networking, etc.. And while O’Reilly and others have smartly outlined some of the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 applications —utilizing collective intelligence, providing network-enabled interactive services, giving users control over their owndata—these traits do not always map neatly on to the technologies held up as examples. Google, which demonstrates many Web 2.0 sensibilities, doesn’t exactly give users governing power over their own data--one couldn’t, for instance, erase search queries from Google’s servers. Users contribute content to many of Google’s applications, but they don’t fully control it. Instead, the Web 2.0 concept wasintended to function as a core “set of principles and practices” that applied to common threads and tendencies observed across many different technologies.2 However, after almost three years of increasingly heavy usage by techies and the press, and, as the writer Paul Boutin notes, after “Newsweek released the word, Kong-like, from its restraining quotes,” critics argue that the term is in danger ofbeing rendered useless unless some boundaries are placed on it.3 Technology writers and analysts have, in fact, devoted countless hours to the meta-work of using Web 2.0 applications (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.) to debate and refine the definition of the term. Still, there has been little consensus about where 1.0 ends and 2.0 begins. For example, would usenet groups, which rely entirely onuser-generated content, but are not necessarily accessed through a Web client, be considered 1.0 or 2.0?
In one sense, it doesn’t really matter that this bright line has been so elusive or that some savvy marketers simply use the label to distance themselves from the failures of Web 1.0 companies. That the term has enjoyed such a constant morphing of meaning and interpretation is, in many ways,the clearest sign of its usefulness. This is the nature of the conceptual beast in the digital age, and one of the most telling examples of what Web 2.0 applications do: They replace the authoritative heft of traditional institutions with the surging wisdom of crowds. So what were those crowds doing online in the Web 1.0 era that was so different from what they’ve started to do over the pastcouple of years? Why bother with the new theoretical meta tag? To be sure, there has been an explosion of businesses and applications that behave differently from the static Web of yore – Flickr, Wikipedia, digg, and Bit Torrent are just a small sampling among a growing wave of players and investment in this field. Data gathered by the Pew Internet & American Life Project over the past two years...