Friday, 27 April 2007

Oh Lord, Please Don't Let Web 2.0 Be Misunderstood

Web 2.0 has undoubtedly created one of the biggest buzzes on the Internet in recent times. The page linked to is actually the web 2.0 entry on Wikipedia - The most read entry on there last year. It seems that everyone involved with the net wants to jump on this bandwagon and "be web 2.0", as if it is some kind of moniker for being cool, but it seems that most people out there, even those involved with the web world, don't really know what it is. This is a problem that many designers and developers get faced with on a regular basis, as clients come to them and say "I want to look web 2.0", or something similar.

Some of the common misconceptions of what Web 2.0 "is" are summarised here:

Web 2.0 is a visual style

This is a misconception that a great many designers, or people looking to become designers, make. A certain visual style seems to have evolved with the web 2.0 revolution, but the ambiguous nature of peoples' understanding of what web 2.0 is has meant that for a great many people, all they can understand of it is what they see in front of them. This means glossy logos with drop shadows, soft gradients, diagonal line backgrounds, wet-floor reflection effects etc. I have been asked a great many times how to design "the web 2.0 look", and my response is always the same - "There is no such thing as the web 2.0 look... There is a set of effects that seem to go hand in hand with a large proportion of web 2.0 applications, but I would never suggest to anyone that they should design for that look. On the whole, I would say that it is a particular trend associated with this point in time, just as there have been other trends over the years. Ultimately, designing to this trend will only serve to date your product over time, and likely to dilute the message that you would usually hope to put across with your logo by having too many effects applied to it."

There are, however, some major examples of web 2.0 sites that do not conform to this current trend, and their logos are the stronger for it. Take MySpace, for example. Like it or not, this is one of the big daddies on the Internet at the moment, but look... No glossy effects, no wet-floor effects... Just a nice, clean logotype. Ultimately the same principles apply when a web 2.0 site is being developed as any other site. This stock set of effects seems to have become a crutch for bad design and lack of imagination.

Web 2.0 is a set of technologies

This is perhaps the most common misconception about web 2.0. So many people think "web 2.0 = AJAX" that it has almost become true just by the sheer number of people that believe it (This is a wonderful example of the crowning principle of the web 2.0 concept - That it is the people that define the Internet and its content). However, a misconception it is, and one that must be dispelled.

AJAX stands for Asynchronous Javascript And XML. It is a mixture of two technologies that have been around for some time to make a solution that allows web sites to send and receive information without reloading the page. This makes for a very "Desktop-like" feel, that has previously only been achievable through the use of Flash. The technology has been used in a number of web applications to facilitate certain functionality - But that is really all that technology is: A facilitator. It is a tool which allows people to do certain things. Web 2.0 sites can equally be built on plain old PHP - The AJAX has been introduced to the mix in an attempt to enable users to do more with the Internet, but thats all.

So what is Web 2.0?

Web 2.0 is a set of philosophies and paradigms for the way that we use and interact with, and using, the Internet. To summarize the key points, it is:

A participatory medium

The idea that it is users who make the content for the web - The web public at large, rather than the "elite" few who own websites. The idea that the Internet is no longer merely an information source for users, but an interactive medium where they can share their knowledge for the benefit of others. It is the idea that the harnessing of the collective knowledge of the world is more useful than that of a select few individuals.

It is also about the idea that users can be of more benefit to each other than a company or expert in a more direct manner. Ebay is one of the biggest websites in the world, and wes truly "Web 2.0" well before its time. It allows the collection of buyers and sellers on there to "self regulate" itself on the whole, trusting that users will express their opinions on their experiences. It has been proven that this philosophy works, too... Research shows that people trust the opinions of other "real" people much more than anything that a large company says. A perfect example of this phenomenon is seen on Amazon. I think that most people who read this blog will have used Amazon at some point. Let me ask you - How often, when you don't know specifically that you want to buy a particular item, to you purchase based purely on the content supplied by Amazon themselves? For most people, the answer to that is "never". Instead, they look straight to the reviews of the product by ther users. The idea that users can enrichen the Internet experience for each other through their mutual participation really works.

A global community

The idea that the Internet is becoming a community in its own right. Wynham Lewis coined the term "global village" years ago, as the Internet made breaking down geographic barriers easier and communication across great physical distances became not only possible, but normal, but now this term could be modified to be termed the "Global Metropolis".

We now have an Internet where we can find people we knew years ago, learn about people we have never met before, make new friends, converse on a regular basis (in many cases for the younger generation, on a more regular basis than in the real world), and much much more. MySpace and FaceBook have become massively successful sites used by millions not only to contribute content, but to find people like themselves, to share in a collective interest and more.

It has become possible for someone to look at a page on the Internet for five minutes and gain more information about you than they would likely gain in five hours of conversation. And these people can find you in any number of ways. You can search for people based on location, age, interests, favorite music and more. People around the world are becoming united by their similarities, as opposed to divided by their differences. This concept is perhaps the most positive thing to have come from the Internet since its birth.

More than this, it is now possible to live an entire alternate life on the Internet. There have been Massively Multiplayler online games for some years now, but now services such as Second Life have come and extended that concept. A user can now create a digital version of themselves online, and interact relatively realistically with other people and with their environment on-line. Second life actually gives users the ability to build homes and items, has its own currency system (which can be traded for real-world money with a real exchange rate), has meeting places and clubs and more. Perhaps more impressively is that most of the content on Second Life has been built by its users.

So the Internet really has, in the most literal sense, become a global community. Geography is no longer any kind of boundary to meeting people, interacting with them on a level that is very real to them, and having an effect on peoples lives. There are even some very significant real-world companies who now have stores on Second Life.

The Internet as a platform

The technologies mentioned earlier have enabled a number of companies to create powerful applications based purely inside a web browser. Google now offers an online word processor, spreadsheet, calendar and soon a presentation creation and display engine from its website. It is no longer necessary to have a copy of Microsoft Office (or similar) on your computer to be able to write an invoice, compose your CV, or organise your day.

This has lead to one of the trends I personally find most annoying right now - The idea of the perpetual beta. There are so many web sites and applications which carry "Beta" as a part of their logo... And its not true. A "beta" is a product that is in public testing. It does not mean a product that is constantly being improved. Most of these applications have been tested and confirmed as working. This is simply lazy application development - An excuse so that the developers can turn around and say "We're still only in beta" when something doesnt work for some reason.

One last thing Web 2.0 isn't...

A great many businesses at the moment seem to think that harnessing all of this will make them successful, make them more money, or similar. This is not true. Web 2.0 is not a gateway to success for big business. In fact it is possibly the antithesis for this concept.

The company I work for, a large travel company, has recently published an updated holiday search engine on their website. One of the features they have added to their search results and the information available to users is "Customer Reviews". The theory they had behind this was that, as people don't trust big business, they will make more money by showing visitors what other customers thought of their holiday.

What they failed to realise was that users distrust of big business is so great they they will not even trust that these reviews are independent. We just undertook a set of user testing, and asked whether the reviews would influence customers' decisions. Almost across the board, the answer was "No... I take it with a pinch of salt. They probably wrote it themselves anyway". In order for user generated content to be trusted, it must be seen to have a certain level of independence from those selling the product in question. For Amazon, this is easy. They buy and sell relatively low cost product that they do not make... They are merely a supplier. For a holiday company, it is much harder - We are seen to have a much greater vested interest in making a sale (And holiday companies are inside the top 10 most hated types of company for the English public).

So... Don't misunderstand what web 2.0 is and is not. Make sure you are clear on what it means before you go in to a project with the words ringing in your ears. Web 2.0 can be a great thing... But it is not a formula for success. Web 2.0 is facilitated by a set of technologies, but is not defined by them, and Web 2.0 is often accompanied by a certain distinctive visual trend... But this style is not a requirement.

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