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By National Science and Media Museum on

What is Web 2.0?

First coined by book publisher Tim O’Reilly in 2004, the term ‘Web 2.0’ has become a popular phrase to encompass the new generation of internet applications that enable content sharing and collaboration.

In fact, the term has been used so frequently in recent years, Web 2.0 was crowned the one millionth word in the English language in June 2009 by the Global Language Monitor. In addition to creating arguments within linguistic circles, the phrase has also raised questions from technology experts who say that many of the components of Web 2.0 have existed since the early days of the Web.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has called the term ‘a piece of jargon’ and claims that nobody even knows what it means. However, the term has gained strong currency in industry, although often what the term describes is not entirely clear. What is different about the Web now than when it was first created? Has some kind of revolution taken place, by which we can say we now have a different Web—a second version? Web 2.0 has become something of an umbrella term that describes a combination of many different technologies, and also some of the particular behaviours of users.

After the bursting of the dotcom bubble shortly after the turn of the millennium, where billions of dollars were lost when it became apparent that the internet was not an automatic route to becoming a millionaire, people have been rightly wary of making extravagant claims about the ability of the net to change the way that we live and work. Web 2.0 could be interpreted as a sign that the internet has ‘grown up’. But what has really changed? People are still making their own homepages, sending e-mails, looking at pictures, posting on message boards, interacting over instant messaging. And the underlying technologies haven’t changed radically at any given point, they have simply been evolving through a constant process of upgrade and expansion—and this process has been going on right from the start of the internet.

So Web 2.0 must really be part of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. The ‘2.0’ part comes from the convention of software versions—a suggestion of incremental changes and improvements: 1.1, 1.2 etc. When we get to 2.0, however, we generally expect significant improvements.

One constant change to the internet is the improvement in connection speed. Higher-bandwidth cable and increased computer memory have created a global network that can quickly send and receive multimedia content. It is now possible to view fairly high quality video, seamlessly over the internet, without waiting a long time for it to download. People are rapidly adopting broadband connections in most developed countries and this has had a huge impact on the quality of user experience.

A second important change has been the increased importance of user generated content. Before the rise of broadband internet, television was seen as the most powerful medium. Now the internet lets the user become the broadcaster and create their own content through free blogs, wikis, social networks and streaming video sites. What’s really different about the internet is that it has the potential to engage in two-way communications—or multiple-way communications.

User generated content is made by you—the user. This might include a blog that you’ve made, a picture you have uploaded somewhere, a MySpace page you have constructed to advertise your band, a Facebook group you’ve created or a video that you have uploaded to YouTube. It could simply be a conversation you’ve had about football or fashion on a message board. Believe it or not, all this is worth money to somebody. Commercial television makes its revenue from advertising and social network sites such as MySpace and Facebook do this too. Around the edges of user-made pages, appear advertisements which are paid for by advertisers. You making a MySpace page, that somebody else sees, makes money for MySpace. (MySpace is owned by News Corporation—and could be seen as part of a media empire, which also controls Fox Broadcasting and many newspapers the world over including The Sun and The Times.)

User generated content can really be anything you like. In some ways this was already the case with the internet—for a long time it has been quite easy for a relatively non-technical user to make their own homepage and publish it to the world. However, it would have been a lot harder for a user to include video on their page, link to their favourite music, and have a message board or discussion and communications tools all on the same page—that would have required sophisticated programming. This is what sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube allow you to do freely.

Social networking is another really important part of what’s come to be called ‘Web 2.0’—sites such as Facebook allow users to create a profile for themselves and to generate a list of online friends which they can communicate with. Social networking is a huge part of people’s existence, and it is particularly important for young people. Facebook has almost overtaken Google in the amount of traffic (users/viewers) it generates. People return to the site repeatedly and stay there for large amounts of time when compared to a search engine.

As well as these commercial services there is a large movement which allows you to do much of this for free and without advertisement. The ‘Wiki’ is one of the most important areas for this. Wikipedia is the most famous example, an online encyclopedia made up of millions of entries written and edited constantly by the users. Wikipedia helps to demonstrate that money is not the only thing that drives us and that we might be able to find more authentic ways of connecting with each other online, outside these commercial spaces.

Finally, the many technologies and programming languages of the internet are working more and more together in Web 2.0 sites. Google Maps is a good example. A technology known as AJAX enables us to see changes to the pages we have on the screen, without us having to reload—this means we can do things like drag pictures around or alter our details in ‘real time’ without having to go to a new page. Although some of these technologies are simply clever combinations of technologies that already exist, the whole thing, when done well, starts to feel a lot ‘smoother’ for the user.

Web 2.0 is here to stay however, and whether we see it as something real, or something that is just part of an evolutionary process and not worthy of the ‘2.0’ part doesn’t really matter. What’s significant is the fact that people are interacting, connecting, consuming and participating online in new ways.

Naturally, Web 3.0 has already been cited as the next step in the evolutionary ladder. Tim Berners-Lee’s vision includes a new semantic web; this refers to a more intelligent system that recognises human language and conversation more fluidly. Web 3.0 can be seen as a new layer to the web that will make it easier to search for content and close the gap between how people communicate with their computer.

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