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Web 2.0 for beginners

There's HEEEUUUUUUGE hype and buzz (650 000 000 Google search results) all over the Internet around Web 2.0, but very little explanation. So what is Web 2.0 really, and why should you care?

The term Web 2.0 was coined by Tim O'Reilly. He's a really famous and important person on the Net, and a veritable geek god. He and his team believe that "the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the fall of 2001 marked a turning point for the web." Before then = Web 1.0. After then = Web 2.0. Whether you buy into that or not, it's unavoidably obvious that the relatively sudden emergence of a whole range of software tools, applications and platforms (generally referred to as social software) in the last 4 - 5 years or so is taking the web in a very exciting direction.

Here's how I understand Web 2.0:

1. A frustrated crowd

Web 2.0 is a knee-jerk reaction to the one-dimensional nature of the 'old' web. But this is not a web or technology thing - this is a disease in our culture and the web is just one place we're seeing the symptoms.

Humans hunger for relationship - especially consumers (or customers). In the 'real world', we are a disenchanted and frustrated lot - further removed from the corporations who make our clothes, bank our money, insure our goods and even cook our food than ever before. This is not natural, and as a result many of us (consumers) are pissed off. We long to engage in dialogue - have an authentic exchange with the service providers whose salaries we pay. But they're too big and we're too small (increasingly so).

Most big companies still don't get this. They're convinced the best way to foster a relationship is through billboards and sexy TV ads. Ironically, the brand managers, advertising gurus and marketing directors who commission these are themselves consumers, and I guarantee you they also switch channels or turn the sound off when ads interrupt their favourite prime time sitcom or soapie. And yet they expect their customers to react differently?

Now back to the web. Web 1.0 was all about pretty sites and slick delivery. Fancy portals and static, brochure-like corporate websites with the mandatory corporate navigation (About Us; People; Vision; Mission; Purpose; Values; you get it) dotted the web everywhere you looked. Just like the rest of the world, the majority of us were consumers, and the majority of the gatekeepers were experts. To host your own page or site meant learning a programming language, FTP, DNS and all that crap - the learning curve was too steep if you had half a life!

So we paid webmasters (experts) to build pretty sites, slicker than our competitors so that our customers would be believe we cared more for them.

Failure to deliver

Web 2.0 is the reaction of pissed off people to an Internet that FAILED to deliver on its promise to democratise publishing for all people. It's the inevitable response of a mob to an oppressive, prescriptive platform - a playground for techies and geeks.

Rupert Murdoch had this to say about Web 2.0 in a recent Wired News article:

    "To find something comparable (to Web 2.0), you have to go back 500 years to the printing press, the birth of mass media - which, incidentally, is what really destroyed the old world of kings and aristocracies. Technology is shifting power away from the editors, the publishers, the establishment, the media elite. Now it's the people who are taking control."

I can't say it better than that - I hope you get the point.

2. Software as an experience

Web 2.0 is all about the user. It's about trying to build applications (and re-build old websites) that are so well-designed, so intuitive and so simple that even the most technologically-challenged human can figure it out.

Technology that is designed and or implemented for technology's sake (think intranets here) almost always fails. Web 2.0 is about the humanification of the web - the humanification of software. It's about designing interfaces that match, not contradict, the way we normally communicate with each other.

Think of Skype (, a great example of a Web 2.0 company that has thought long and hard about user-friendliness. And it earned over U$3 billion dollars in an eBay takeover, so investment in design has got to be worth something. Think iPod. Think simple. Think natural, think organic. Web 2.0 is striving to capture the essence of effective human networking and collaboration and digitise it.

3. Beta is better

When a Web 2.0 company slaps a 'Beta' stamp on a product, they're saying, "We have made something for you to try. We're not sure it's perfect yet, but we're open to criticism and experimentation. We want feedback from you - let's have a conversation. We know that without your input we'll lose. So please give it a go, and if you like it tell others about it".

The Beta stamp is a flag for innovation. It's a celebration of constructive failure, and progressive experimentation. It's a gesture of trust.

4. Viral marketing (or word-of-mouth on steroids)

Word-of-mouth is still the most powerful form of advertising. Our networks are playing an increasingly important role in our lives - it's who you know that really counts. Web 2.0 companies are banking on both these dynamics and are experts at capitalising on the viral nature of networks.

So when Google launched its webmail service, GMail, they did something pretty ingenious from a marketing point of view - they closed off applications for new accounts. Only key influencers - power nodes in the online world - were invited for GMail accounts and each were given 100 invitations.

As word spread like the plague that GMail admission was by invite only, it became every connected geek's sole purpose in life to discover who had an account and ask for an invitation. Brilliant. GMail washed over the Net like an epidemic, infiltrating network after network through the most connected and informed individuals. Great market research for Google, too.

All about play

Web 2.0 is not a phase of growth, and I'd go so far to say that it's more than just a set of nifty new software. Web 2.0 is a culture, a way to interact, to share and to collaborate. It is about the bigger picture, about getting the most out of any given network of individuals.

Last, but not least, Web 2.0 is about play. It's about experimentation on the part of you, the user. Try everything once, they say . If you don't like it, ditch it. Remember technology for technology's sake is a ball-ache at best. But if it works, it could change the way you see the world.

About Mike Stopforth

Mike is the founder and CEO of Cerebra, a specialist in social media and social business consulting, education and implementation for corporate brands. Now as part of the Wunderman Group following its acquisition in 2013, Cerebra provides support to one of the largest digital agencies in the country...

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