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What is Web 2.0?


Web 2.0 Startups

— ​Is Web 2.0 a hype? Yes. Is it something real? Yes, also.Is it good? No. Is it bad? No. Is it neutral? No! A Web 2.0 Pamphlet written by Marianne van den Boomen.

What is Web 2.0 then? It is a metaphor. Metaphors are funny things. They elude questions of truth and reality, and at the same time they produce truths and realities. They produce meanings and qualifications, frames of thought and action. They show things and aspects, and they hide other things. They compress and they decompress. Especially when it comes to digital code they are extremely useful. What's more, they are indispensable here. Without metaphors we have no access to digital code. We humans are simply not able to read or manipulate digital code, as this consists of bare inscriptions of difference, representing sets of numbers. We humans are strange semiotic creatures. We can interpret signs in almost any mode: graphic, pictorial, acoustic, object-like - some people are even able to interpret star constellations, iris patterns or coffee grounds. But we can't interpreter sets of digital numbers. We need metaphors to translate these numbers for us. Metaphors are our access keys to the digital. They are the transcoding interfaces between human information processing and machine information processing. They connect our minds and hands with the machine, and vice versa. Concepts as the electronic highway, cyberspace, or the global village are easily recognized as metaphors. But also that small mailbox icon on our desk top is a metaphor. And what about the desk top itself? Home? Menu? Button? Forward? Our computers are machines build of metaphors, the Internet is build of metaphors.

The Web itself is a metaphor, though a forgotten one. Who thinks of the web as a metaphor? It is so taken for granted. It connotates the vast system of html-pages, connected by hyperlinks and the http-protocol, it denotates non-linearity, decentralisation, criss-cross navigation, linking and connecting as you like. But if we take the metaphor seriously - that is: literally - we see some interesting things. The web metaphor of course comes from the spider's web. Now this is a very centralised structure. The spider weaves it's web, according to a pre-formatted pattern, and then sits in the center, waiting for it's prey. This seems to be completely contrary to the web denotations of decentralisation, non-linearity and freedom, but after a second thought this indeed reveals something about the web's architecture. After all, the World Wide Web is based on clients (webbrowsers on our PC's) and servers (dedicated machines which store hosted websites at some provider). Servers and clients are connected in an unambiguously hierarchical manner. In that sense the web is more locally centralised than we usually acknowledge. The web metaphor might suggest that we, the users, are the spiders, masters in the center of our self-woven web, waiting for our preys, ready to march out when something interesting hits our threads. But this only holds when we maintain a website or a webserver ourselves. As web visitors we are not the spiders, we are the prey. I am not saying this is bad, and that we should refrain from visiting websites. And I am not saying this is good. I am saying this is good to hold in mind. Parsing metaphors gives you knowledge, knowledge about what is revealed and what is concealed. And that is good.

Now, recently a new metaphor emerged: Web 2.0. A new, revolutionary web, where YOU as a user really matter. (Apparently, and retrospectively, Web 1.0 did not really fulfill it's promises.) YOU are the person of the year according to Time magazine, because YOU do things on the web and make it better. YOU blog or write comments to other people's blogs, YOU leave messages, reviews, links and your IP-number on websites you visited, YOU create your profile and submit your list of friends to social networking sites, YOU upload your pictures to Flickr, your movies to YouTube, your bookmarks to, and YOU tag till you swag. YOU participate, YOU generate content, YOU remix content, YOU connect content, YOU are content. Thus YOU, and millions of other YOU's create network effects, collective intelligence, swarms of ideas, and new forms of sociality. But, hey, where are YOU in the metaphor Web 2.0? Well, nowhere. And again, I am not saying this is bad, and I am not saying this is good.

Let's parse this thing. The metaphor 2.0 takes up the web as a release of a software package. In the field of software manufacturing a release of version 2.0 implies: - a new release after an older version 1.0 - a release which is not only patched but fundamentally improved - the urge is to update/upgrade, or you will be lagging behind - and though a software release need not necessarily be commercial, it certainly has a shade of branding and marketing.

What I like about this metaphor of 2.0 is that is focuses on software as such. Strange enough, this is rare in computing and Internet metaphors. Most metaphors indicating something digital lead our attention away from software; this one foregrounds it. That's special. What's more, I would say, this is good. What is this software of Web 2.0, how is it different from the software of Web 1.0?

Without going deeply into technical details, we can say it is all about scripts and databases. It is about script layers on top of plain old Web 1.0 html-files - scripts which consult distributed databases with all kinds of data fragments. The more meta and website transcending these databases are, the stronger their network effects. The webscripts perpetually recollect and reassemble new dynamic compound 'pages' from these fragments. We are still thinking in the metaphor of the page, but in fact the age of the page is over. What is delivered to YOU are recollections of floating signifiers: tagclouds, lists of bookmarks and affiliations, search and review results, RSS-feeds. YOU provide the content of these databases, YOU distribute your knowledge, your traffic data and your social relations over these databases. YOU become a distributed data body without organs, a body of data fragments, wrapped in script layers. Like a mummy.

Thinking about what the software exactly does is good. Connecting this to what is does to YOU and your Culture 1.0 is also good. What remains is the question: who are the spiders and who is the prey?

A Web 2.0 Pamphlet written by Marianne van den Boomen.


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