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Magazines > Information Today > September 2006
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Information Today

Vol. 23 No. 8 — Sept. 2006

FEATURE
Caught in the Web 2.0
By Michael Baumann


Ask Howard Dean or Mark Zuckerberg what user-generated Internet content can do.

User-generated content is one of the cornerstones of Web 2.0, the much-discussed but enigmatic new online paradigm that has catapulted previously unknown Internet companies such as Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and Wikipedia to international notoriety and earned their creators great fame and fortune.

Web 2.0 refers to a new wave of Web applications built for user-added content that are made to change continuously to accommodate new data and technology. Before Web 2.0, programmers posted Internet content, and the exchange of information was mostly one-way. More recently, blogs, wikis, and social-networking sites have allowed ordinary users to post content online, making anyone with an Internet connection a potential resource.

“Every technological revolution begins as the barriers to entry go down,” said Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., and one of the original masterminds behind Web 2.0. “Web 2.0 is, at its heart, about understanding what it means to build applications for the network as a platform,” he said.

A classic example of the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, cited by O’Reilly in his 2005 article “What is Web 2.0,” is the difference between Britannica Online and Wikipedia. In Web 1.0, content was written, edited, and published by a select group of people, much the same way books are published. In Web 2.0, anyone can add to the collective pool of knowledge, and anyone can access it.

In the spirit of user-collaboration, the term “Web 2.0” has itself become malleable and easily changed. “Since Web 2.0 is whatever people mean it to be, it’s one of these evolving things—it doesn’t mean what those of us who cooked it up originally intended it to be,” O’Reilly said. As a result, Web 2.0 has become a buzzword that many people use, but few really understand; instead, Web 2.0 has come to mean a variety of things to a variety of people.

O’Reilly compared Web applications to The Turk, an 18th-century chess-playing automaton. The Turk appeared to be a box powered by a clockwork mechanism with a mannequin attached to one side to move the pieces. In reality, the device was not automatic at all; a man was actually hiding inside the box, operating the mannequin from within. Likewise, to outside observers, Web applications appear to run on their own, but there are really programmers at the controls. Web 2.0 comes from the use of more temporary programming and scripting languages that let users edit the content without being inside the mechanism, resulting in hacks and plug-ins for open-source software, while making Web 2.0 applications infinitely upgradeable and customizable. As a result, instead of having to deal with one-size-fits-all software, a user can take the framework of an application and customize it with all the desired upgrades, without any superfluous functions.

The Web 2.0 revolution will, according to O’Reilly, go largely unnoticed by the average PC user. “They notice the cool new services on the Web, but they’ve never heard the buzzword, and I don’t think they need to,” he said.

Web 2.0 continues to grow as more and more new sites emerge, and as established companies begin following the practices espoused by companies such as Flickr and Google. In the future, we can only expect to see the reach and capabilities of online services expand, changing everyone’s perception of what can be done on the Internet.


Michael Baumann, a journalism major at the University of South Carolina (with a political science minor), is the editorial intern for Information Today, Computers in Libraries, and Marketing Library Services. His e-mail address is mbaumann@infotoday.com.

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