November 2007 Archives

Web 2.0 in Shanghai

Colin Shek interviewed me for a cover story in Shanghai Talk, a city lifestyle magazine published in English in China. The article, also picked up by Beijing Talk and Macau Talk, will apparently reach a nationwide audience of millions.

Shanghai Talk

So, how do you explain Web 2.0 to a general audience in China? Well, I had no idea. You need only glance at the magazine's web site to realize we're talking about some different cultural expectations with respect to user experience. But, I'm guessing Colin's article Riding the Web 2.0 Wave is an excellent attempt.

Anyway, since only my most pithy quotes made print, I'm posting the interview.

1. What are the differences between Web 2.0 and Web 1.0?

I have mixed feelings about Web 2.0. On one hand, there is a great deal of hyperbole surrounding this artificial assignment of numbers. The Web grows and changes every day. There is no step change. There are no versions. On the other hand, Web 2.0 celebrates the distance we've traveled since the early 1990s and the recent resurgence of interest and investment in the Internet.
So, while there is no clear line of separation, the distinguishing features of Web 2.0 applications include user participation, co-creation, tagging, syndication, mashups, and rich interfaces that enable us to venture beyond HTML and beyond the page.

2. Why has Web 2.0 happened within the specific time of the past five years? What technologies and events have been invented or occurred which helped facilitate the Web 2.0 phenomenon?

Web 2.0 was made possible by the underlying Internet infrastructure, and the maturity of an alphabet soup of standards, technologies, and software development methods including CSS, XHTML, XML, RSS, and AJAX.
However, Web 2.0 is as much about attitude as technology. It's about relaxing control over the data, the interface, and the experience. It's about taking risks, admitting mistakes, and continuously improving with the help of your users.
This new way of the Web was inspired by a few early success stories. For instance, Google Maps powerfully illustrated the tremendous potential of rich Internet applications and of mashups that combine data from multiple sources. And, sites such as Flickr and Wikipedia cast the spotlight on the largely untapped potential of users as contributors and co-creators.
These pioneers showed it could be done and gave the greenlight to a new generation of designers and entrepreneurs who have been racing full speed ahead ever since.

3. User-created content sites, like Wikipedia, YouTube and Flickr, are becoming increasingly common and the most-viewed sites on the internet, leading to the 'Cult of the Amateur' where popular content is produced by non-professionals. Is it possible these sites will eventually replace traditional mainstream media, like newspapers and television shows? What about much of the user-created content not being scrutinised or verified, as is the case of copyrighted material appearing on YouTube or factually incorrect information on Wikipedia?

Mainstream media has forever lost its monopoly on our attention, but professionally produced movies, music, newspapers, articles, and books will continue to play a key role within our increasingly diverse media ecology. We love the authenticity of amateurs, and it's fun to see what everyone else finds interesting, but we also need experts and editors to tell the important stories and deliver difficult news in ways that are clear and compelling.
User-created content presents both risk and opportunity with respect to the truth. It's dangerously easy these days for misinformation to spread through the blogosphere and around the Web. And many people lack the basic skills and understanding necessary to evaluate the accuracy of information they find.
Therein lies the opportunity. In a world where we can increasingly select our sources and choose our news, our educational institutions (and our children) must rise to the challenge of information literacy. We need to teach people to evaluate the authority and quality of the content they find, and for important topics, to always seek out diverse perspectives from multiple sources.

4. The websites that have come to characterise Web 2.0 - Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Technorati, YouTube, Flickr - all have mass penetrations into young audiences, adolescents making up the core users of the social networking sites for example. Is this teenage flocking just a popularity bandwagon following, or are young adults actually instrumental to the Web 2.0 push? If so, why is this?

Today's teenagers are the world's first generation of web natives, and they are perfectly suited for the participatory nature of Web 2.0. Armed with cell phones, laptops, and teenage angst, they have means and motive for conspicuous social networking.
MySpace and Facebook serve as tools for teenagers to establish personal brands, strengthen relationships, and simply play with media and the message. They enable teenagers to experiment with the presentation of self, to try their own hand at spin, and to explore new ways to communicate, collaborate, and construct knowledge.
The overall phenomenon is real, and yet fashion clearly plays a role in the preference of one site over another. What's cool today is gone tomorrow. Teenagers are notoriously fickle. That's one thing that hasn't changed.

5. Various blogs and forums make light of Web 2.0's impact, calling it an undefined 'buzzword', meaningless jargon, etc. They also deride the distinct aesthetic look conveyed by Web 2.0-conforming websites: translucency, gloss, pastel colours, gratuitous use of Flash, modular components. Is this an undeserved representation of Web 2.0?

Unfortunately, many designers have used Web 2.0 as an excuse to forget the lessons we learned in the 1990s about usability, findability, and accessibility. In this sense, Web 2.0 has earned its bad reputation.
However, I do believe that once the focus on flash and fashion fades, we'll be in a better position than ever before to create user experiences that balance form and function.

6. There are some privacy advocates who believe Web 2.0 poses a danger, because increasing numbers of websites are retaining metadata about their users, and so much information is already available on the internet. Blog comments, stored search engine results, tagged data, downloaded podcasts, and much more all help construct a valid, current identity of the user. Is this a future danger to be wary of?

We're entering a difficult period of disruptive change in which our fundamental assumptions about privacy will be tested and transformed. Video cameras are shrinking in size and cost while growing increasingly powerful and pervasive. GPS, RFID, cellular telephony, and wireless networking are enabling location awareness services which make it easy to tag and track high-value objects such as products, possessions, pets, and people. And, Web 2.0 makes it easy to aggregate rich personal information from multiple sources. We will need to strike a new balance that recognizes a person's right to privacy without sacrificing the value these technologies and services offer.

7. In Ambient Findability, you discussed the problems surrounding the Semantic Web. Could you describe these problems and possible solutions? What do you think about semantic web start-ups like Hakia and Spock?

With respect to the big picture vision presented by Tim-Berners Lee in his 2001 Scientific American article called "The Semantic Web," I'm a skeptic. As an information architect with an academic background in librarianship, I'm painfully aware of the challenges of language and representation. Our best attempts to structure knowledge and manage meaning through the creation of controlled vocabularies and thesauri have fallen far short of the ideal, and I'm under no illusion that artificial intelligence and ontologies will save the day.
For this reason, I'm immediately suspicious of any startup (such as Hakia) that claims to deliver semantic search across many disciplines and industries. If we can't create algorithms to reliably protect us from spam, how can we expect software that understands meaning? In contrast, Spock is a "sociosemantic" vertical search application that combines software algorithms with human participation to improve our ability to find (and disambiguate) individuals. I think this type of messy yet focused solution has a realistic chance of success.

Strange Connections

Rob Gifford's China Road provides a fascinating glimpse into modern China. It's an amazing time to be there. I'm hoping to visit before too long.

Tim O'Reilly describes being on the outside, looking in at China Foo Camp.

And, back in the USA, allegedly Web 2.0 Manages to Sober Up.

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If you're considering which conference to attend this winter, don't! Instead, you should join us at Webstock and put some summer in your winter.


Seriously, the programme looks great, and I can't wait to visit New Zealand. Hiking the Tararua range is high on my list, but if you've got suggestions for things to do in the Wellington region, please let me know. Thanks!

Strange Connections

Having recently visited and lectured at the immensely inspiring institution known as the New York Public Library, I enjoyed reading Future Reading.

In Understanding Search Usability, Shari Thurow explores berrypicking (and pogosticking) from usability and seo perspectives.

The folks at Yahoo! Research investigate the use of search results to enhance query classification to improve search results (and advertising).

The UFOs are coming, compliments of Trackstick, Bladerunner GPS, and a host of miscellaneous knowsy gadgets.

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