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Magazines > Online > May/June 2006
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Vol. 30 No. 3 — May/Jun 2006

On The Net
The Terrible Twos: Web 2.0, Library 2.0, and More
By Greg R. Notess | Reference Librarian, Montana State University

Parents often describe the trials and tribulations of raising 2-year-olds as “the terrible twos.” Movie sequels, although not called the terrible twos, rarely equal and even less frequently exceed version 1.0. So what is a searcher to make of the recent spate of sequels and twos on the Net? We have Web 2.0 and its offspring, and relatives such as News 2.0, Library 2.0, School Library 2.0, and 2.0 Culture. Do the sequels live up to their hype?

Typically, new software releases bear a version number such as 2.0. The version-numbered releases have new features and capabilities for one specific program. This is not the case with the latest round of 2.0s on the Web. They are a conglomeration of technologies, ideas, and approaches that, at least to some, represent a new way of interacting online. Their meanings are ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. In fact, one of the concepts of the 2.0 movement is being a movement away from new software releases.

Even though much of the 2.0 technologies are the playground for Web designers and programmers, knowing the terminology and sample sites allows the information professional to converse about the new trends and to find both useful sites and new capabilities to integrate into information products. Rather than debate the overall merits of the 2.0 movement, information professionals should explore the territory, techniques, and examples to find the most useful applications in your own work environment.

WEB 2.0

The beginnings of the 2.0 designations started with Web 2.0, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle, which was then promoted at O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference in 2004. For the definitive overview see “What is Web 2.0” [www.snipurl.com/ictw], a lengthy essay that includes seven disparate points such as “The Web as Platform,” “Harnessing Collective Intelligence,” and “Rich User Experiences.” Read the whole piece to understand why “there’s still a huge amount of disagreement about just what Web 2.0 means, with some people decrying it as a meaningless marketing buzzword, and others accepting it as the new conventional wisdom.”

One of the seven points is that Web 2.0 means the “End of the Software Release Cycle” and yet the moniker of Web 2.0 imitates the versioning used in new software releases. So why call this whole concept Web 2.0? Whatever the reason, the phrase has stuck, and now 2.0 is expanding to other areas.

More concisely, the nebulous Web 2.0 concept represents a second wave of Web techniques to create more interactive and easy-to-use Web sites using new technologies (or using older technologies in a new way). Certain Web sites popular with the tech crowd are often used as Web 2.0 examples: del.icio.us, Flickr, Listible, Writely, Yahoo! Answers, Google Maps, Meebo, and Digg exemplify various aspects of Web 2.0. The technologies often used in connection with Web 2.0 include Ajax, blogs, APIs, clouds, CSS, RSS, social networking, tagging, and wikis.

Consider the Web 2.0 disparate group of ideas as a way of differentiating some of the current Web from that of the previous millennium. The 1990s Web included many social aspects and even used some Web 2.0 technologies, but the current crop of Web 2.0 sites combine those technologies in different ways. Specifically, Web 2.0 sites have much more interactivity, with the ability to easily edit and move objects.

Ajax

Ajax is one tool of choice for creating interactive pages with easily changeable components. Some commentators equate Web 2.0 with Ajax while others say that Ajax is only a part of Web 2.0. Its definition is a bit more straightforward than that of Web 2.0, since it is really an acronym for Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, although the acronym in all uppercase is no longer common usage. It also involves more technologies than JavaScript and XML. As defined by the Mozilla Development Center [www.snipurl.com/ajaxdef], Ajax is an “approach to using a number of existing technologies together, including: HTML or XHTML, Cascading Style Sheets, JavaScript, The Document Object Model, XML, XSLT, and the XMLHttpRequest object. When these technologies are combined in the Ajax model, web applications are able to make quick, incremental updates to the user interface without reloading the entire browser page.”

For the nonprogrammer, the easiest way to understand Ajax is to see some examples. The way users can drag Google Maps is a classic example of Ajax. For another example, look at Protopage, which offers a free, personalized home page. Each panel or box can be dragged, resized, and made into a bar that drops down when the cursor is placed over it. Protopage’s interactivity is all made possible using that combination of technologies in Ajax.

APIs

An Application Programming Interface (API) is used to exchange data with other applications. Even though many commercial software programs carefully guard the secrecy of their APIs, several Internet companies not only publish their APIs but also allow others to use them to incorporate their data. Amazon, eBay, Google, the Internet Archive, NASA, and Yahoo! all have APIs that let other sites pull content from the source to display on their Web site or use to create new concatenations of data, called mashups.

APIs help designers find ways to mashup data from several sources into a new look, feel, and functionality. Without going into the technical details of APIs, a great way to get a sense on what ones are available and how they are used is to visit ProgrammableWeb [www.programmableweb.com] that lists freely available APIs along with mashup sites that are using various APIs. Linking to over 150 APIs, the mashup list is even larger with 400-plus entries.

Of Tails and Clouds

Moving away from the acronyms, the Long Tail and Tag Clouds are also connected with some Web 2.0 definitions. The concept of the Long Tail comes from an October 2004 article in Wired by Chris Anderson [www.snipurl.com/longtail]. Basically, it talks about the advantages for online retailers listing large numbers of infrequently requested items. Popular items may get the most attention and sell well, but the total volume of items in the Long Tail—those that only sell a few items each—may well exceed the sales of the most popular items.

The Long Tail concept applies to Web searching. The search engines like to make lists of the most popular queries, but they get an extremely long tail of infrequent queries that make up the bulk of their traffic. The advertising on these long tail searches is an important component of their profits. The model easily applies to libraries as well. Although best sellers circulate at high rates, it is the availability of the many infrequently circulating items that are important to our users. The Long Tail’s emphasis on a vast amount of less popular content connects with Web 2.0 applications that use APIs and mashups to provide access to data that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Tag Clouds, on the other hand, lead to the most popular items on a site. Tagging is the new popular name for subject indexing, although lacking controlled vocabulary. On many of the interactive Web 2.0 sites, users can tag entries with their own descriptors. The online bookmark site, del.icio.us, lets users create their own tags and suggests tags based on how others have tagged the same page. Tags are used at Flickr, 43 Things, and Technorati, among others. Some of these allow only a single term tag, while a few allow multiple words. These collections of tags are called folksonomies and are taxonomies created by the general public. From an information professional perspective, folksonomies are just as messy as you might expect.

Tag clouds display the tags with an emphasis on the most popular ones. These are shown at many sites that support tagging. Instead of making a simple list of tags, they are clustered in a cloudlike shape in different font sizes. The clouds emphasize the most popular tags by putting those in the largest font. See the tags at Technorati for an example of the tag cloud. In keeping with the interactive, mashup spirit of Web 2.0, create your own clouds at TagCloud.com.

Combining several of these ideas with a few Web 2.0 sites demonstrates Web 2.0 activity. For this column, I was interested in seeing what gets tagged as Web 2.0 at del.icio.us. While that is easily viewable [www.del.icio.us/tag/web2.0], del.icio.us only lists the items in reverse chronological order. Wondering what other tags were used in conjunction with Web 2.0 from this set at del.icio.us, I went to TagCloud and quickly signed up for an account. I then entered a name, a description, and the URL for the RSS feed at del.icio.us to produce a tag cloud that displays the other most popular tags used in that feed. Anyone else can now see my results as well [http://www.tagcloud.com/cloud/html/Web20Cloud], and the cloud will be updated as the items in the feed change.

LIBRARY 2.0

How does all this relate to the library world? Enter Library 2.0, or, in its acronym form, L2. Like Web 2.0, the definitions for L2 are many. Partly a port of Web 2.0 concepts to the library world and partly a desire to rethink and retool library services, L2 has a broad focus and, like Web 2.0, has also engendered much debate. For some, L2 incorporates blogs, wikis, instant messaging, RSS, and social networking into a library services setting. Others describe finding new ways of involving patrons by letting them contribute comments, add tags, rate library items, and get involved in other interactive and collaborative activities.

As with Web 2.0, L2 has generated its share of controversy and blog postings weighing in on both sides. Walt Crawford has an extensive perspective on the many sides of L2 and its many definitions in his midwinter 2006 Cites and Insights [http://cites.boisestate.edu/civ6i2.pdf]. A White Paper by Paul Miller and Ken Chad, “Do Libraries Matter? The Rise of Library 2.0” [www.talis.com/resources] suggests approaches libraries can take to align themselves with users’ perceptions based on Web 2.0. Where the movement will go, and how many library vendors will adapt their products appropriately remains to be seen. But I expect the push to find good uses for new technologies, to revisit user interactions, and to explore new methods to deliver information will lead to some significant successes.

OTHER TWOS

Other professions have their Web 2.0 offspring. From the old news media we now have News 2.0 which is a meme (a 2.0 word for buzzword) for sites such as Newsvine, TailRank, Findory, and Digg. As usual with the terrible twos, definitions for News 2.0 vary. The commonality of the sites include typical Web 2.0 ideas, such as reader ratings, comments, and even contributions. Some call it a simple remixing of news with no original content and again, bloggers debate even the name itself.

A variant on Web 2.0 is the design-centered 2.0 Culture which includes sites using rounded shapes, footers, oversized fonts, and buttons. Excluded from 2.0 Culture are animated gifs, visible tables, and Java applets. For an L2 variant, we have School Library 2.0 with visions of student reviews via blogs, interactive calendars, class wikis, and instructional screencasts. The Where 2.0 conference focuses on location-aware technology such as MSN Virtual Earth, Google Maps, Yahoo!, and open source GIS. Echoing concerns over an over-hyped 2.0 movement, there is even Internet Bubble 2.0.

Ultimately, will there be a 2.0 2.0? There is already discussion of what Web 3.0 will look like. At first look, much of the technology of Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 date back more than just a few years. Even the approaches such as interactivity, user comments, instant messaging, and social networking have been tried before. But before dismissing the concepts, visit some of the example sites, experiment with their capabilities, and imagine the possibilities for products and processes in your own workplace.


Greg R. Notess [greg@notess.com; http://www.notess.com/] is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of SearchEngineShowdown.com.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@infotoday.com.


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