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The semantics web

December 02, 2006

A few days ago, Kathy Sierra wrote about the usefulness of jargon, in a post titled "Web 2.0 is more than a buzzword." She pointed out that jargon - good jargon - forms a kind of shorthand for specialists. A complicated idea in a particular domain can be boiled down to a simple term, allowing experts in that domain to communicate more efficiently. "It's about being able to talk about ideas or processes or even parts with fewer words and (potentially) greater meaning," she writes. I might take issue with the "greater meaning" contention, but she's absolutely right about the efficiency of jargon.

She's wrong, though, it seems to me, in claiming that "Web 2.0" qualifies as good jargon. For jargon to be useful, for it to make conversation more efficient, specialists have to have a shared and clear understanding of what it means. If they don't - if the jargon is fuzzy - it ends up making communication less efficient. It gets in the way. "Web 2.0" is fuzzy jargon; specialists like web developers don't share a precise sense of its meaning. Sierra grants as much when she writes of the term that

it wraps [together] many different - and big and ill-defined - concepts. But when Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty (the guy who first coined the term) talk about Web 2.0, it represents something real and specific and meaningful. Over time, a lot of other people (especially those who've spent time around them, including me) have come to understand at least a part of what they've encapsulated in that one small phrase. "Web 2.0" may be the least understood phrase in the history of the world, but that still doesn't make it meaningless.

It does make it pretty useless for specialist conversations, though. The best evidence that "Web 2.0" isn't good jargon is that specialists, who embrace good jargon because it makes their lives easier, don't much like it. Either they find it frustratingly vague or they dismiss it as a meaningless slogan, or worse.

Nevertheless, I agree with Sierra that the term has value. But its value lies in its being exactly what Sierra says it's not: a buzzword. Sierra has little use for buzzwords, claiming they're used "to impress or mislead." That's true in many cases, but it's not the whole story. Buzzwords can also be useful, particularly for nonspecialists. by capturing, in a simple term, a diffuse and ill-defined trend or concept - by doing, in other words, what Sierra says "Web 2.0" does: wrapping together many different - and big and ill-defined - concepts. A buzzword is sufficient for nonspecialists because nonspecialists neither need nor particularly want precision - a general sense of the concept is good enough. Specialists, on the other hand, find buzzwords annoying because specialists both need and want precision. They have a professional stake in the precision of meaning within their domain. Nonspecialists don't.

For nonspecialists, ie, ordinary people, "Web 2.0" simply means that something kind of new is happening on the Internet. It involves popular sites like MySpace and YouTube and Flickr and the proliferation of things like blogs. It involves people creating and sharing stuff online. It's a trend, a phenomenon. And that level of definition is sufficient for most folks. They couldn't care less about Ajax and APIs and all the other arcane technical matters that mean so much to the specialists.

Wade Roush, in a piece for Technology Review yesterday, gave as good a definition of "Web 2.0" as any I've come across. The term, he wrote, is used

to refer to a combination of a) improved communication between people via social-networking technologies, b) improved communication between separate software applications - read "mashups" - via open Web standards for describing and accessing data, and c) improved Web interfaces that mimic the real-time responsiveness of desktop applications within a browser window.

If you try to get any more precise than that you quickly find yourself in a rathole, arguing about semantics.

Tim O'Reilly made a game attempt to get more precise about "the meaning of Web 2.0" last week, but he ended up shedding more darkness than light on the subject:

Despite lots of other people asserting that Web 2.0 has something to do with Ajax, or mashups, or various specific technologies, I've tried from the beginning to give it a broad but consistent meaning. My first attempt, the paper "What is Web 2.0?" spent ten or fifteen pages walking around the subject, but I've now got it down to a short definition: "Web 2.0 is the move to the internet as platform, and an understanding of the rules for success on that new platform. First among those rules is building applications that harness network effects to get better the more that people use them."

Yes, it's short, but what the hell does it mean? I think the best that can be said is that it suggests the aspects of Web 2.0 that most interest O'Reilly at this point. Which is fine, but not much help to anyone else. Besides, the internet has always been a platform - look at what Amazon was doing with collaborative filtering, user-generated content, database sharing, and web services back in the Nineties. And good old eBay remains the poster child for network effects. What's changed is really just the emphasis in the use of the internet, and what caused that change, and provided the impetus for the attendant technical advances, is that household broadband penetration reached a critical mass sometime in the early part of this decade.

O'Reilly's original "What Is Web 2.0?" remains one of the best things written about the phenomenon. And its strength lies in its imprecision, its open-endedness, its refusal to try to pin things down. O'Reilly provided a series of observations and impressions, and, really, that's the best way to approach any discussion of "Web 2.0." You need to "walk around the subject," because if you try to get to the center of it you'll find there's nothing there.


Excellent post! "Web 2.0" seems like a foggy concept even to those professionals in the Internet industry. It's very difficult to get someone to write down specifically what it is.

Maybe Web 2.0 is like what the judge said about pornography, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."

Posted by: Roger von Oech [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 2, 2006 04:45 PM

Bubble 2.0 is all about data-mining and digital-sharecropping, getting suckers to work for free (this last is called "user-generated content" or "citizen journalism"). That's very clear for the nonspecialist. The foggery comes out of the imperatives of marketing, combined with an affectation for turgid sociological prose (i.e., instead of a "sweatshop", it's a "manufacturing facility where the worker community is the main platform of production").

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 2, 2006 09:21 PM

I think it's pretty simple:

"Web 2.0 is the attempt to produce stuff without a profit motive"

Therein lies its strength, its weakness, and ultimate failure.

Posted by: Hazel Motes [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 2, 2006 11:11 PM

I stand by my definition:
* Web 1.0: Streams of information
* Web 2.0: Streams of interaction
* Web 3.0: Streams of interpretation
Alternatively, exchange "streams" with "network".

Posted by: Espen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2006 08:24 AM

Web 2.0 is what I make it.

Seth, you haven't thought very deeply about UGC, have you?

Posted by: Howard Owens [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2006 08:44 AM


He said it (I didn't)


Stands for "user-generated content," a new form of online scam in which you make all the content, and we keep all the money."

I don't want to be too harsh on you, but one clear sign of bubblishness is the disbelief that anyone could possibly understand the phenomena and not be a cheerleader (doesn't "Get It"). Yes, there's always the crowd that used to crawl uphill both ways on broken glass on their knees during the good old days. But there's also always hypesters after the New New Thing.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 3, 2006 09:04 AM

Funny ... I thought jargon was a layer of obfuscation used to keep out the uninitiated.

Posted by: Sid Steward [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 4, 2006 12:10 AM

Thinking this over, I'll offer a couple more possibilities: 1) "web 2.0" is a new name for something that didn't exist before, 2) "web 2.0" is a dreamer's meditation piece, like Tetragrammaton.

Turn on, log in, tune out, baby. ;-)

Posted by: Sid Steward [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 4, 2006 01:27 AM

An example of UGC is Amazon comments. I don't think our host would deny the comments about his books were helping Amazon more than himself --- and I can't imagine users that come back if they don't feel UGC empowers them.

Regarding definitions: I don't know of any specialist using "Web 2.0" otherwise that as a meme or a corpus.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 4, 2006 05:26 AM

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