Web 2.0 Definition and Solutions

Web 2.0 topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.

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Why is Web 2.0 such a big deal?

What are the Web 2.0 technologies?

What do those technologies let you do?

How does Web 2.0 change the user experience?

How can Web 2.0 benefit my business?

What's the borderline between the hype and the promise?

What do those technologies let you do?

Ajax is just the screwdriver that lets a programmer affix certain behaviors to a website. The common elements that help define a site as Web 2.0—at least superficially—include mashups, real-time data feeds, tagging, user-generated content and resource sharing.

Mashups is a relatively new term for a Web function that's been around for a while: aggregating elements from several online sources on a single webpage. If your personal homepage automatically includes a box showing the local weather prediction, technically your site is a mashup (though a rather lame one).

However, mashups are generally meant to be an integral source of the site's value, not a convenient or gratuitous add-on. Also, they usually combine existing data in a new and useful way, such as connecting Google maps with Craigslist rental listings to help a site viewer locate a new home, or a graph connecting publicly available demographic data to zip codes, or a restaurant-finder using address data and Yahoo's restaurant listings.

Real-time data feeds provide an ongoing stream of information. Usually the data is from an external source, such as an ever-changing text box showing the latest news items or a site element that links to the most popular photos. However, the data feed could just as easily show corporate data, such as the latest software build status, network uptime or other dashboard-like features.

Standard websites use a designer's structure, called a taxonomy, to organize how information is found and displayed on a website. Instead, Web 2.0 sites often use tags, which are simply words chosen by the content creator to describe the item. For example, a user might tag her photo "cat, glue, Boston," to identify the subject, location or situation in the image. Or a blogger might tag his entry with keywords that describe the topic: "politics, Academy Awards, Golden Gate Bridge." Neither of those users has to decide whether the new content should be shoehorned into "pets" or "tourism," which might have been the predetermined taxonomy categories.

When tags work, they let users organize data in ways that make sense to them. Plus, they almost instantly become a kind of real-time data feed. Web 2.0 sites often display the most popular tags with font size indicating topic popularity (called a tag cloud), making it a great way to discover interesting things or to spot trends. As with anything else search-related, however, tags aren't perfect, as they rely on users choosing keywords that others will recognize. Should someone clicking on a San Francisco tag automatically be shown the Golden Gate Bridge tagged item? That's just one example of the wisdom still to be developed.

The use of tags brings up another key bit of Web 2.0: building a site on user-generated content. Online participation isn't a new phenomenon; virtual communities have been around since electronic bulletin board services first became popular in the mid-1980s, and companies like CompuServe built their entire business around user-created and -maintained discussion forums. With Web 2.0, however, the community's contributions become the star, and the site exists only to create and serve those contributions.

That's certainly true of the myriad photo-sharing sites, for example; without people uploading "me and my dog" pictures, there's nothing at all to look at. It's also the case for dozens of websites where people share links to articles and webpages that they think are cool.

In earlier times, most of the user interaction was conversation. With Web 2.0, a large part of the experience is sharing data (files, music, interesting articles, video), ideally in a "remixed" fashion with "rich interactivity"—terms that are intentionally vague and thus open to both cynicism and innovation.

How does Web 2.0 change the user experience?

The point of all the technology and the design principles is, of course, to enhance the way that people interact with one another and with their computer systems. Ideally, Web 2.0 sites (whether built for internal company use or for public consumption) make it easier for people to connect and to learn from one another. The result of the user-generated content, for instance, is said to be "collective intelligence," or the wisdom that comes from consensus decision-making. (Buzzword-watchers will remember when the hyped term for this was "collaboration.")

Whether for trivial matters like movie reviews or for important business-changing decisions, the advantage is that people can work and play better, and collectively can make more intelligent decisions.

One side effect of the Web-based rich Internet application, which runs primarily on a hosted server (though the user interface elements run on the client's Web browser), is that it promotes the notion of "software as a service." Arguably, whether written for in-house use or acquired from a service vendor, these technologies can make it easier to upgrade and maintain applications, to deal with security issues, and to take advantage of the service-oriented architecture (SOA) capabilities in which your company has invested. Your developers can build applications that rely on publicly available Web services, treating the Internet like a planetary operating system.

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