The Trouble with Web 2.0

December 23, 2006

Once upon a time, publishing webpages was solely the domain of a relatively select few. Those who had the ability to code in HTML, who knew how to use FTP to upload files and who had access to space on a webserver connected to the Internet. A decade ago, GeoCities was one of the first sites to offer free webspace for the general public to post their own pages. Many, many bad pages were produced, mainly because you still needed technical skills and ultimately, it was a sea of static pages providing one-way communication. And just because you had technical skills, it didn’t mean you also had writing and layout skills.

Skip forward to late-2004 when the term Web 2.0 was first used. A new wave of dynamic and totally interactive websites was introduced and the previous travellers of the information superhighway could all suddenly become consultants to and constructors of it. Wikipedia introduced the concept of a free on-line encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of contributors and reviewers. MySpace offers social networking with an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, photos, music, videos and groups. Sites like del.icio.us are a social bookmarking phenomenon and have the power to direct large numbers of visitors to websites through a quick and simple recommendation system. Sites and services like these are increasing the generation of content on the web exponentially, simply by giving everyone the ability to easily contribute.

The trouble with Web 2.0 is that many new contributors have little consideration of laws and ethics and the governance of many nations has no comprehension of the implications of Web 2.0. For example, a few years ago, the band Metallica came down very heavily on peer-to-peer sharing networks like Napster for illegal distribution of their music. In the scheme of things, Napster users were a drop in the bucket compared to YouTube. This free site contains videos contributed by anyone and viewable by everyone, and many of Metallica’s video clips and live performances are neatly catalogued. While their Terms of Use specifically state that the uploading of copyrighted material is not permitted, the worse thing that will happen is the video will be removed as soon as it’s identified. Problem is, with 65,000 videos being posted each day, finding them all is not a simple task. So YouTube is presently a minefield of copyrighted videos – but even that didn’t stop Google from paying US$1.65B to acquire the company. Worse still, it’s a place where kids can post their pranks, shot with their mobile phone cameras. You like to destroy displays in a supermarket? Get your mates to video it, post it on YouTube and you’ve not only got a worldwide audience, but a host of mimickers to idolize and emulate your feats across the globe. Sadly, there are also videos of school playground bashings and fights.

Social networking sites like MySpace and Bebo are aimed directly at younger people and often at children. While it’s great that children can express themselves and have a voice in front of a wide audience, it’s the more mature concepts of privacy, decency and respect that are often lacking in their posts. Further, it’s the legal concepts of copyright infringement, defamation and incitement that are easy to forget in the world of Web 2.0. Why is it possible to so easily and publicly identify, defame and slander a man on a site like Don’t Date Him Girl! without any evidence to back it up? Why can students edit Wikipedia and Bebo entries about their school to include disparaging comments about teachers and other students?

The most common way that schools around the world are managing this problem is by filtering (blocking) access to many Web 2.0 sites at school. OK, that keeps the problem out of the school (assuming the children haven’t worked out how to circumvent the filters), but it does nothing to stop the problem at home. Laws are also ill-equipped to manage the problems of Web 2.0. What if the poster is a minor? What if the service is hosted in another country? What lesson will be learnt if the only repercussions are that the offending post will be removed – sometime after it has been found and reported?

So what’s needed? I think governments, schools and parents need to be more open-minded about the social-networking phenomenon for a start. We need to stop managing the posts and start managing the people who post. We need to update the age-old difference between right and wrong to mould it into a Web 2.0 environment. It’s not about exclusion, it’s about teaching respect and consideration and responsible self-publishing. It’s about teaching people to think critically in all aspects of life and it all needs to be backed up with appropriate, enforceable guidelines and laws.

Finally, yes, I accept the irony of writing about the Problems of Web 2.0 by using a Web 2.0 application. ) And there’s always the problem of what people might add to the comments section! ;)


The Habits of Highly Effective Web 2.0 Sites

December 2, 2006

The next Web 2.0 Conference will be upon us in early November and things are busier than ever in the Web 2.0 world.  Along the way, I’ve managed to miss the one year anniversary of this blog, which I began back in late September of last year.  There have been over 2.5 million direct hits on this site since inception, a large percentage of it due to my Web 2.0 lists such as last year’s Best Web 2.0 Software List , but I also get e-mail frequently from die-hard readers as well.  Most importantly however, from all my conversations with people all over the world, it’s clear that Web 2.0 remains more than ever a topic of major popular interest and industry fascination.

While the general understanding of Web 2.0 is improving all the time, we have a ways to go before we have a concise, generally accepted definition.  My favorite is still networked applications that explicitly leverage network effects. But while most of what we ascribe to the Web 2.0 name falls out of these definition, it’s fairly hard for most of us to extrapolate meaningful ramifications from this.

People that read this blog know that I’m in the camp of folks that try to look beyond Ajax and the visual site design aspect of Web 2.0, and try to capture the deeper design patterns and business models that seem to be powering the most successful Web sites and online companies today.  Though concepts such as harnessing collective intelligence and Data as the Next Intel Inside, as described by Tim O’Reilly , most directly capture the spirit of the Web 2.0 era, it does seem to me that there are a few other elements that we haven’t nailed down yet.

At the AjaxWorld Conference and Expo earlier this month, I gave my usual talk about how to formally leverage Web 2.0, with plenty of examples coming from things happening out on the Web.  If you accept that it’s the power and size of the Web today , particularly the number of highly interactive network nodes (who are mostly people), give them extremely low-barrier tools, and we should be able to find plenty examples of emergent behavior; significant events happening suddenly and unexpectedly.  Tipping points are getting easier and easier to reach as site designers learn how to create better network effect triggers, draw large audiences suddenly, and as those same audiences increasingly self-organize spontaneously, such as in the KatrinaList project (suddenly) or Wikipedia (slower but bigger).

And it’s the arrival of Web 2.0 “supersites” like YouTube , which appear suddenly, often riding the coattails of other major Web 2.0 site’s ecosystems, and apply aggressive, viral network effects that show us the true, full scale of the possibilities.  Building a Web site worth over one billion dollars in 18 months is a very impressive result, but it’s really only a single axis upon which Web 2.0 can be applied successfully.  Another axis upon which to apply Web 2.0 focuses less on pulling in every single user possible with a horizontal network effect, but on building a difficult to reproduce but highly valuable data source, such as the Navteq mapping database, or Zillow’s real estate database.  One might argue that these are still very horizontal but these are merely just well known examples.

The variety and depth of the Web is such that not every Web 2.0 site will have tens of millions of users, nor should it.  An effective Web 2.0 site is largely powered by its users, whose feedback and contributions, direct and indirect, make the site a living ecosystem that evolves from day to day, a mosaic as rich and varied as a sites users would like it to be.  In other words, creating a high quality architectures of participation is becoming a strategic competitive advantage in many areas.

I’m often asked, particularly after one of my presentations on Web 2.0, to articulate the most important and effective actions a site designer can take to realize the benefits of Web 2.0.  As a result, I’ve created the list below in a attempt to catpure a good, general purpose overview of what these steps are.  My plan in the near future, is to dive into each one of these as much as time permits and explain how they make highly effective Web 2.0 sites not only effective, but often possible at all.  In the meantime, please take them for what they’re worth, I believe however that they are instrumental in making a Web site or application the most successful possible.

The Essentials of Leveraging Web 2.0

  • Ease of Use is the most important feature of any Web site, Web application, or program.
  • Open up your data as much possible. There is no future in hoarding data, only controlling it.
  • Aggressively add feedback loops to everything.  Pull out the loops that don’t seem to matter and emphasize the ones that give results.
  • Continuous release cycles.  The bigger the release, the more unwieldy it becomes (more dependencies, more planning, more disruption.)  Organic growth is the most powerful, adaptive, and resilient.
  • Make your users part of your software.  They are your most valuable source of content, feedback, and passion.  Start understanding social architecture.  Give up non-essential control.  Or your users will likely go elsewhere.
  • Turn your applications into platforms. An application usually has a single predetermined use while a platform is designed to be the foundation of something much bigger.  Instead of getting a single type of use from your software and data, you might get hundreds or even thousands of additional uses.
  • Don’t create social communities just to have them. They aren’t a checklist item.  But do empower inspired users to create them.

Of course, there a lot of work in the details and these are just some of the important, general essentials.  Unfortunately, a lot of careful thinking, planning, and engineering goes into any effective Web 2.0 site and it’s having these ideas at the core of it, which can help you get the best results.

Final Note:  I’ll be on the road the next two weeks and will be at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco from Nov. 7th-9th.  I’ll be there writing coverage for the Web 2.0 Journal and here as much as possible.  If you’re going to be there, please drop me a line if you’d like to meet.


Million Dollar Homepage Becomes Multi-Million Dollar Homepage

December 2, 2006

Alex Tew, the mastermind behind The Million Dollar Homepage is most certainly pressing his luck. Tew sold one million pixels worth of advertisement for $1 per pixel and made $1 million. It worked so well that he thinks he can do it again, this time for twice the price.Tew is reportedly on the verge of launching a second site called Pixelotto. Instead of selling each pixel for $1, he plans to sell each pixel for $2, plus hold some kind of lottery where the winner who clicks the right advertisement will win $1 million.

I will gladly eat my words if Tew can pull this off but I just don’t think that lightning strikes twice. It was a good idea…once! Second time around, it’s not, as Michael Arrington calls it, “another stupid, brilliant idea.” It’s just a stupid idea.


Gizmo Project Will Make Web Calling Easy

December 2, 2006

One of the biggest challenges of being a mobile worker is that it is almost impossible to make VoIP calls, either over EV-DO networks, or commercial wifi services, like the T-Mobile network, often found in Starbucks. Port blocking, and lack of bandwidth makes it difficult to make phone calls when you most need them, forcing you to spend the expensive premium mobile wireless minutes.Well, there is some good news coming. Earlier this morning I had a chance to chat with Jason Droege, CEO of San Diego-based VoIP services provider, SIPphone, and he showed off a new version of his service that is ideally suited for Web Workers.

SIPphone makes a soft client which runs on Windows, Linux and Mac computers, and allows you to either IM your friends, or chat with those on your buddy list. What makes it as useful as Skype is its ability to make and receive regular phone calls, from either landlines or mobile phones. Outgoing calls cost a penny a minute anywhere in the US, so it is fairly inexpensive.

The company has now developed a new flash-based browser plugin based version of their service that is very simple to use. The new offering will be launched sometime in the near future. later this month. Go to the website, plug in the number, and hit call. The call is initiated and that’s it. If you have a pair of headphones (all iPod owners do), just plug them in and have a conversation. You don’t even need to have any Gizmo software installed on your computer. You could make phone calls from Internet Cafe’s if you are traveling around the globe.

I suggested to Jason, that they should also add a feature where you can plug in your mobile phone number and the system connects both phones. This would reduce the reliance on choppy wifi networks, or bandwidth constrained EVDO networks.

It is not impossible, and Jajah, another low cost VoIP service provider, offers similar connection service, and is becoming very popular. These kind of simple browser based VoIP applications are going to become more valuable as more of us cut the cord, and work outside the “box.” What do you think folks? Are you likely users of this web-based calling service.


Is Google Adding Blog Search to Google.com?

December 1, 2006

Once-a-month blogger, occasional web designer and UK based family guy Andy Boyd has posted a screen capture of blog search results appearing on the front page of a regular Google web search. A number of other bloggers have picked this up but no one else has been able to reproduce Boyd’s experience. It’s a believable scenario because Google recently added blog search to Google News last month and to Google Alerts four days later. The UK, where Boyd lives, is frequently a testing ground for new Google features right around the corner.

Obviously real estate even on the very bottom of the first page of Google results would be great for the blogosphere. If Google Blogsearch can’t get rid of all the splogs in its search results though, it could lead to some level of backlash against blogs in general. I don’t know anyone who’s as good at excluding splogs as Ask/Bloglines – they only display blog search results from blogs that at least one Bloglines user has subscribed to and they have algorithms to prevent gaming of that safeguard as well.

If Google really does take the bold step of including blog search on the front page of its web search results, it will be the first major search engine to do so. Blogs are included in general search results (see the search results for gay men social networking for example) and may have such good search engine optimization natively that they don’t need a special place on the page – but it could only help broaden exposure to the medium.


The ‘iPhone’ Coming Out January 2007

December 1, 2006

CNN and Reuters is reporting that the rumors of Apple introducing an iPhone are no longer an “IF” but a “WHEN”. Speculation is as early as January 2007 at the MacWorld Conference.

Since Apple’s introduction of the iPod five years ago, the company has sold more than 67 million of the devices and more than 1.5 billion songs from its iTunes online music store. Now, Chief Executive Steve Jobs and Apple are poised to roll out what has been dubbed the “iPhone,” perhaps as soon as January next year at the Macworld conference that kicks off every new year, analysts say. “From a technical standpoint, the phone is pretty much done,” said American Technology Research analyst Shaw Wu. “It’s a big endeavor and we believe it’s beyond speculation.”

Speculation has simmered since even before the introduction of the ROKR phone from Motorola Inc. that uses a slimmed-down version of the iTunes digital music jukebox to play 100 songs. But sales were lackluster as users complained the phone did not hold more songs.

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Marketing Your Business with a Blog

December 1, 2006

Brian Brown on Work.com provides a guide on how to use blogging as an effective way of marketing your business and staying in touch with your customers. The transparent nature of blogging allows you to connect, communicate and inform your current and potential customers in a way you just can’t through glossy brochures and slick corporate web sites. A blog can be a very nice compliment to your current marketing mix and costs virtually nothing to start up – just a change in a mindset from trying to be the keeper and protector of information to the sharer of it.

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