Web 2.0  - The Web as a Platform

When the world wide web was initially launched, it was far from our everyday experience when browsing the web now. Websites were static and very much to provide the user with information. The World Wide Web Consortium director (and inventor of the www) Tim Berners-Lee described it as "read-only."

According to Google Trends, searches for the term "Web 2.0" peaked in 2007. We've recently seen interest pick up again, with the arrival of the so-called "Web 3.0" it is often compared to.

In this post, we will cover the term Web 2.0 and showcase some of the advantages and disadvantages it has brought.

Trying to define Web 2.0

The term first came into use during the aftermath of the dot-com bubble when the web shifted more towards focusing on users. This shift didn't just change how the web looked but also how users would interact with it. The term was coined by Tim O'Reilly in conversation with MediaLive International and was made official by hosting an event named after it in 2004.

Web 2.0 describes, for the most part, the current status of the web. The bursting of the dot-com bubble marked a turning point for the web. For some, it was a sign of the web being overhyped (in repetition), and they turned away from it. But as crypto investors will know, shakeouts are part of an upward trajectory of new technology.

Not all decided the web was just a fad; the dot-com bubble gave birth to the tech giants we rely on so heavily now such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Companies that thrived after the burst seemed to have things in common that didn't feel like the previous web. These "things" would become the basis for defining Web 2.0. It's worth noting that Web 2.0 doesn't describe a specific version of the web but a set of features and philosophical shifts, as illustrated in the map below.

The gravitational core of Web 2.0 is the provision of the web as a platform. It enabled a level of user interaction that was previously unimaginable.

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Idea of democratization

With Web 2.0 emerging as a platform, it spurred a new wave of user participation: Anyone could now participate in content creation, interact and be more than a mere consumer.

Along with this democratization, there was also a shift on the supply side. Chris Anderson, serial author, and editor-in-chief at Wired, argued that, with Web 2.0, companies could economically start marketing to niche audiences.

Companies couldn't afford to spend thousands on TV advertising and just speak to a niche. But on Web 2.0, Amazon could easily list all the niche books, and Facebook started as a network just for college students.

To clarify the differences between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, it's helpful to compare two platforms from each era. Let's take the one you probably used to find out about us: Google; and one typical example of a Web 1.0 platform.

Netscape & Google

Netscape was the first web browser produced by Netscape Communications Corporation in 1994. That's why, if you're fortunate to be a bit younger, you might not ever have heard of them.

It used to be the leading browser on the market until Microsoft came along with its "Internet Explorer" and made it the default option on all its hardware. Netscape lost virtually all its market share to the competitor and stopped support for all browsers and client products in 2008.

The way Netscape operated was typical for a Web 1.0 company. Their strategy consisted in using their dominance in the browser space to sell high-priced server products. Their consumers had to purchase licenses to use any of the products and would be required to renew when new updates came out.

Google, by contrast, started as a web-native app. It didn't require licensing, nor did it charge its users. It made life easier for users by enabling them to find what they were looking for. Google isn't in the business of providing servers, nor a browser. Its search engine doesn't even host the content it enables users to find.

One characteristic of Google is that their service relies heavily on specialized database management - a feature many Web 2.0 platforms share.

Data

It's self-evident by now that Facebook isn't just a social network but a data company. It's not just giving you a way to keep up with the lives of your mates from high school but using your behavioral data to sell more ads.

Google, another of the FAANG crowd (or should we say the MANGA crowd now), uses previous search history to serve users personalized ads and search results.

In another example, Amazon initially relied on the same ISBN data as their competitors but enhanced it continuously by adding publisher-supplied data, images, and user's purchase history to serve ever-more-suited products.

Successful web 2.0 businesses have strong database management skills.

Crowd Wisdom

With increased participation, companies that embraced the wisdom of crowds came out on top. What makes eBay great? Is it their interface or the ease of use?

No, the most significant impact on eBay didn't come from its technology. It came from the buyers and sellers on the platform who interacted and reviewed their experience to instill trust in others. Regardless of how excellent their platform is, in the end, eBay needed a critical mass of engaged buyers and sellers to exist.

Similarly, Wikipedia wouldn't be without crowd wisdom. On Wikipedia, anyone can create a site and contribute to others. What's more impressive (at least if you're a firm believer in economic theory) is the complete lack of financial incentives to participate. It's driven by a community of people dedicated to helping others make sense of the world.

And any open-source project relies heavily on the collective intelligence of internet users.

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To quickly summarize, Web 2.0 brought with it broader access, the possibility for users to contribute, which enables companies to benefit from crowd wisdom, and collect vast amounts of data.

The emergence of Web 2.0 also ended the software release cycle; companies continuously update their stack. Additionally, advances have created the rich user experience we're used to now.

Web 2.0 has brought us blogs, wikis, social media networks, and web apps, which we all use nearly every day.

Advantages of Web 2.0

Without Web 2.0 tools, remote working would have been nearly impossible, nor would we have been able to stay in contact so readily with our friends and family across the globe when we were physically not allowed to travel. A few of the most significant benefits of Web 2.0:

  • Connecting & Collaborating: thanks to web 2.0 Social Media Networks and collaboration tools like Teams, Miro, slack, we can connect with people worldwide and work together without ever being in the same physical location.
  • Simplicity: Surfing the Web nowadays comes naturally to most of us. It's very straightforward. Web 2.0 apps are intuitive, easy to use, and often help users solve specific problems without requiring technical knowledge. The rise of no-code tools even enables non-developers to create complex business logic inside of apps.
  • Exchange of Knowledge: By enabling anyone to create a blog and voice their opinions, Web 2.0 has created a platform for more marginalized voices to be heard and knowledge to be exchanged across borders. Such an exchange can be leveraged by companies externally, or happen organically on any Web 2.0 forum.

However, as so often with new developments, Web 2.0 also has a few disadvantages, with the recent Facebook outage just being one significant sign of what's going wrong.

Dangers of Web 2.0

Web 2.0 as a whole is taking an increasingly interconnected shape. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Blogs, and other Web 2.0 sites are linked together in an array of complex APIs, user-created apps, and extensions.

A lot of the activity on Web 2.0 is platform-centric. We see this play out when users rely on their social media platforms to get their news. Increasingly these Big Tech companies have become so big that they start branching out in each other's realms. You might associate Google with just Search, but it's also one of the biggest cloud providers. So is Amazon Web Services, whose e-commerce platform is increasingly becoming the go-to platform for shoppers to find products, circumventing Google (As can be seen in the below graphic).

Dangers resulting from this centralization of power and the "free to use" business model are:

  • Comprised Security: As any centralized entity, big tech companies have centralized points of failure. This was well illustrated by the recent Facebook, Instagram & WhatsApp outage, which took down three big platforms for hours and resulted in millions of losses for businesses and individuals relying on the platforms for their livelihoods. The bigger a platform gets, the more attractive a target it is, and the more likely it will be attacked by hackers.
  • User is the product: Seemingly free to use when you don't directly pay for a product; because you are the product. In recent years recognition of the value of the data, we create using Web platforms has grown, leading to the phrase "data is the new oil." Big companies collect our data and sell it to others for advertising revenue. Often, there is no transparency towards who receives our data or means to control its use.
  • Censorship & Filter Bubbles: Censorship happens on Social Media and content sharing platforms with a track record of banning crypto influencers. However, censorship can be more far-reaching than just having tweets and videos banned. Governments can control internet traffic by managing internet providers and monitoring their citizens' activities. There are reportedly over 10,000 websites blocked in China, including significant media hubs like the New York Times. Filter Bubbles result from algorithms feeding us more and more of the content we liked before and less of the things that might challenge our views, which can lead to a distorted worldview, and at times fuel radical ideas.

With Big Tech increasing its reach, more consumers and even governments have become aware of the disadvantages of Web 2.0. The next iteration of the Web, Web 3.0, promises to bring philosophical changes to the Web that could create a fairer, more democratic Web empowering people to be free.

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What could this Web 3.0 look like? Watch out for our next post.