11 December 2006 by Ian Davis
Tim O’Reilly has posted yet another definition of Web 2.0. This time he has synthesised several earlier definitions into something that he hopes is clearer:
Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I’ve elsewhere called “harnessing collective intelligence.”)
While I think this is still too woolly, I thought I’d pick up on the “chief” rule of “applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them”. Now, I actually believe this is more a definition of social software than Web 2.0 in general. It’s very similar to the definition Tom Coates wrote almost two years ago:
Social Software can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behaviour – message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking.
However, O’Reilly’s definition is slightly stronger. It distinctly says that the application gets “better” the more people use them. In the comments to that post, a visitor asks whether that final phrase means “to get better as more people use them” or “to get better as people use them more”. O’Reilly’s answer is:
…”both”. More people, or more usage, or both. A system with lots of people doing very little might be less powerful than one with a mid-sized group doing a lot. Most participatory systems involve both large, little-involved groups and smaller, more committed core groups
So the definition is applications that harness network effects to get better as more people use them or as people use them more. O’Reilly states his definition as a set of rules that will help inform businesses how to be successful using the Internet as a platform. I thought it would be interesting to explore a few Web 2.0 applications and see how this rule applies in each case. I often find that taking things to extremes helps me better understand the underlying problem so I imagined each candidate application having only a single user and asked if the experience were any different from having many users.
For starters, an easy one: eBay. My guess is that eBay must have tens of millions of users buying and selling all manner of goods. What if there were only a single user? Clearly in that case the single user can’t sell to herself and there’s nothing new to buy either. eBay is definitely better with more people using it so under O’Reilly’s definition eBay is doing a lot of the right sort of thing to be successful on the Internet.
last.fm? With only a single user this becomes simply a place to record your favourite tracks. There’s some utility in knowing your all time favourite artist and album, but it’s so much better when your tastes can be correlated with thousands of other people’s.
What about Basecamp, the lightweight project management application built by 37signals? If there were only one user then it seems to me that she could use Basecamp as effectively as when there are dozens or hundreds. Each user has their own project area which is entirely isolated from other peoples. This is by design but it means that Basecamp doesn’t get better the more people use it.
Stikkit was one of the startups launched at the recent Web 2.0 Summit. It’s an application that uses some smart pattern recognition software to overlay structure on your random notes. You can invite other people to contribute or comment on your notes. However, although Stikkit enables you to collaborate with others their participation doesn’t significantly improve the experience. The vast amount of utility that comes from Stikkit is available whether there is a single user or many.
What about something that is features heavily with the Web 2.0 mashup scene: Google Maps. Clearly the availability of the APIs coupled with some very interesting data makes this application a great poster-child for the Web 2.0 movement. However adding more users makes it no better than having a single user. The reason for this is pretty easy to see: Google Maps it’s purely a spectator sport. There’s no participation allowed or encouraged and, as far as I know, Google doesn’t even use incidental usage data to improve the application. So, perhaps this is a different kind of Web 2.0 application, one that doesn’t follow the chief rule of getting better the more people use it.
To be successful in any medium you need to exploit the advantages that medium gives you. You wouldn’t expect any televised news reporting to be successful if it were presented like a newspaper? The intrinsic advantage that television gives you is the capability to instantaneously broadcast moving pictures and sounds to millions of people. Any news reporting that doesn’t use that to the full or treats the medium like an extension of print is doomed to failure. O’Reilly is telling us that to be successful on the Internet you need to exploit the innate advantages of the Internet as a medium.
What are those advantages? There are a few, but the single most important one is the capability to enable almost zero cost communication and exchange of information between any number of people. In Tom Coates’ terms it enables human social behaviour on unparalleled scales. In the same way that television encompasses the advantages of print and adds new capabilities, the Internet enables the same broadcast mode of television but add the capability to incorporate multiway communication between the parties. Building applications that function as though the Internet were a cheaper way to broadcast moving pictures and sound is akin to newscasters simply reading out of copies of that morning’s newspaper on tv!
This communication advantage is the underlying reason for O’Reilly’s chief rule which could be expanded to:
Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Because the primary advantage of the Internet as a medium is that it enables almost zero cost communication and exchange of information between any number of people the chief rule for success is to exploit this and build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.
Basecamp and Stikkit are taking advantage of another capability that the Internet provides: location transparency. By storing data centrally and using the Internet to access that data these applications eliminate the need for their users to worry about where their data is. It’s available wherever they are. However, although this is a capability the Internet provides, it’s not unique and hence isn’t a significant advantage of the Internet medium. Both applications would work as well over a private dial-in network. Less convenient, but still perfectly workable. The same is true to a lesser extent of Google maps.
Because Basecamp and Stikkit aren’t exploiting the primary advantage of the Internet as a medium then I predict that unless they embrace supporting, extending, or deriving added value from, human social behaviour they will ultimately be left behind and fail.
The idea that the Internet uniquely enables this multiway communication isn’t new. There’s a long history from Tim Berners-Lee’s original web browser that let the user edit the page, through Dave Winer’s prescient Two-Way-Web ideas right up to Richard MacManus’ Read/Write Web. It’s no mystery why the Internet’s killer app has been email.
It’s also no surprise why the Bubble generation of Internet applications failed so spectacularly. They failed to realise the real advantage that the Internet brought and treated it like a cheaper broadcast or worse still a better newspaper.
Web 2.0 is about using the Internet for what it’s good at: building web applications that enable and benefit from human social behaviour on a massive scale.