The Soul of Web 2.0

Introduction: In The Beginning

Back in the 1980s, when personal computers mostly meant IBM PCs running Lotus 1*2*3 and, perhaps, if you were a bit off-center, an Apple Macintosh running Aldus Pagemaker, the idea of a coherent and interconnected set of documents spanning the known human universe seemed fanciful.  But there have always been dreamers, among them such luminaries as Douglas Engelbart, who gave us the computer mouse, and Ted Nelson, who coined the word ‘hypertext’.  Engelbart demonstrated a fully-functional hypertext system in December 1968, the famous ‘Mother of all Demos’, which framed computing for the rest of the 20th century.  Before man had walked on the Moon, before there was an Internet, we had a prototype for the World Wide Web.  Nelson took this idea and ran with it, envisaging a globally interconnected hypertext system, which he named ‘Xanadu’ – after the poem by Coleridge – and which attracted a crowd of enthusiasts intent on making it real.  I was one of them.  From my garret in Providence, Rhode Island, I wrote a front end – a ‘browser’ if you will – to the soon-to-be-released Xanadu.  This was back in 1986, nearly five years before Tim Berners-Lee wrote a short paper outlining a universal protocol for hypermedia, the basis for the World Wide Web.

Xanadu was never released, but we got the Web.  It wasn’t as functional as Xanadu – copyright management was a solved problem with Xanadu, whereas on the Web it continues to bedevil us – and links were two-way affairs; you could follow the destination of a link back to its source.  But the Web was out there and working for thousand of people by the middle of 1993, while Xanadu, shuffled from benefactor to benefactor, faded and finally died.  The Web was good enough to get out there, to play with, to begin improving, while Xanadu – which had been in beta since the late 1980s – was never quite good enough to be released.  ‘The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good’, and nowhere is it clearer than in the sad story of Xanadu.

If Xanadu had been released in 1987, it would have been next to useless without an Internet to support it, and the Internet was still very tiny in the 1980s.  When I started using the Internet, in 1988, the main trunk line across the United States was just about to be upgraded from 9.6 kilobits to 56 kilobits.  That’s the line for all of the traffic heading from one coast to the other.  I suspect that today this cross-country bandwidth, in aggregate, would be measured in terabits – trillions of bits per second, a million-fold increase.  And it keeps on growing, without any end in sight.

Because of my experience with Xanadu, when I first played with NCSA Mosaic – the first publicly available Web browser – I immediately knew what I held in my mousing hand.  And I wasn’t impressed.  In July 1993 very little content existed for the Web – just a handful of sites, mostly academic.  Given that the Web was born to serve the global high-energy-physics community headquartered at CERN and Fermilab, this made sense.  I walked away from the computer that July afternoon wanting more.  Hypertext systems I’d seen before.  What I lusted after was a global system with a reach like Xanadu.

Three months later, when I’d acquired a SUN workstation for a programming project, I immediately downloaded and installed NCSA Mosaic, to find that the Web elves had been busy.  Instead of a handful of sites, there were now hundreds.  There was a master list of known sites, maintained at NCSA, and over the course of a week in October, I methodically visited every site in the list.  By Friday evening I was finished.  I had surfed the entire Web.  It was even possible to keep up the new sites as they were added to the bottom of the list, though the end of 1993.  Then things began to explode.

From October on I became a Web evangelist.  My conversion was complete, and my joy in life was to share my own experience with my friends, using my own technical skills to get them set up with Internet access and their own copies of NCSA Mosaic.  That made converts of them; they then began to work on their friends, and so by degrees of association, the word of the Web spread.

In mid-January 1994, I dragged that rather unwieldy SUN workstation across town to show it off at a house party / performance event known as ‘Anon Salon’, which featured an interesting cross-section of San Francisco’s arts and technology communities.  As someone familiar walked in the door at the Salon, I walked up to them and took them over to my computer.  “What’s something you’re interested in?” I’d ask.  They’d reply with something like “Gardening” or “Astronomy” or “Watersports of Mesoamerica” and I’d go to the newly-created category index of the Web, known as Yahoo!, and still running out of a small lab on the Stanford University campus, type in their interest, and up would come at least a few hits.  I’d click on one, watch the page load, and let them read.  “Wow!” they’d say.  “This is great!”

I never mentioned the Web or hypertext or the Internet as I gave these little demos.  All I did was hook people by their own interests.  This, in January 1994 in San Francisco, is what would happen throughout the world in January 1995 and January 1996, and still happening today, as the two-billion Internet-connected individuals sit down before their computers and ask themselves, “What am I passionate about?”

This is the essential starting point for any discussion of what the Web is, what it is becoming, and how it should be presented.  The individual, with their needs, their passions, their opinions, their desires and their goals is always paramount.  We tend to forget this, or overlook it, or just plain ignore it.  We design from a point of view which is about what we have to say, what we want to present, what we expect to communicate.  It’s not that that we should ignore these considerations, but they are always secondary.  The Web is a ground for being.  Individuals do not present themselves as receptacles to be filled.  They are souls looking to be fulfilled.  This is as true for children as for adults – perhaps more so – and for this reason the educational Web has to be about space and place for being, not merely the presentation of a good-looking set of data.

How we get there, how we create the space for being, is what we have collectively learned in the first seventeen years of the web.  I’ll now break these down some of these individually.

I: Sharing

Every morning when I sit down to work at my computer, I’m greeted with a flurry of correspondence and communication.  I often start off with the emails that have come in overnight from America and Europe, the various mailing lists which spit out their contents at 3 AM, late night missives from insomniac friends, that sort of thing.  As I move through them, I sort them: this one needs attention and a reply, this one can get trashed, and this one – for one reason or another – should be shared.  The sharing instinct is innate and immediate.  We know upon we hearing a joke, or seeing an image, or reading an article, when someone else will be interested in it.  We’ve always known this; it’s part of being a human, and for as long as we’ve been able to talk – both as children and as a species – we’ve babbled and shared with one another.  It’s a basic quality of humanity.

Who we share with is driven by the people we know, the hundred-and-fifty or so souls who make up our ‘Dunbar Number’, the close crowd of individuals we connect to by blood or by friendship, or as co-workers, or neighbors, or co-religionists, or fellow enthusiasts in pursuit of sport or hobby.  Everyone carries that hundred and fifty around inside of them.  Most of the time we’re unaware of it, until that moment when we spy something, and immediately know who we want to share it with.  It’s automatic, requires no thought.  We just do it.

Once things began to move online, and we could use the ‘Forward’ button on our email clients, we started to see an acceleration and broadening of this sharing.  Everyone has a friend or two who forwards along every bad joke they come across, or every cute photo of a kitten.  We’ve all grown used to this, very tolerant of the high level of randomness and noise, because the flip side of that is a new and incredibly rapid distribution medium for the things which matter to us.  It’s been truly said that ‘If news is important, it will find me,’ because once some bit of information enters our densely hyperconnected networks, it gets passed hither-and-yon until it arrives in front of the people who most care about it.

That’s easy enough to do with emails, but how does that work with creations that may be Web-based, or similarly constrained?  We’ve seen the ‘share’ button show up on a lot of websites, but that’s not the entire matter.  You have to do more than request sharing.  You have to think through the entire goal of sharing, from the user’s perspective.  Are they sharing this because it’s interesting?  Are they sharing this because they want company?  Are they sharing this because it’s a competition or a contest or collaborative?  Or are they only sharing this because you’ve asked them to?

Here we come back – as we will, several more times – to the basic position of the user’s experience as central to the design of any Web project.  What is it about the design of your work that excites them to share it with others?  Have you made sharing a necessary component – as it might be in a multi-player game, or a collaborative and crowdsourced knowledge project – or is it something that is nice but not essential?  In other words, is there space only for one, or is there room to spread the word?  Why would anyone want to share your work?  You need to be able to answer this: definitively, immediately, and conclusively, because the answer to that question leads to the next question.  How will your work be shared?

Your works do not exist in isolation.  They are part of a continuum of other works?  Where does your work fit into that continuum?  How do the instructor and student approach that work?  Is it a top-down mandate?  Or is it something that filters up from below as word-of-mouth spreads?  How does that word-of-mouth spread?

Now you have to step back and think about the users of your work, and how they’re connected.  Is it simply via email – do all the students have email addresses?  Do they know the email addresses of their friends?  Or do you want your work shared via SMS?  A QRCode, perhaps?  Or Facebook or Twitter or, well, who knows?  And how do you get a class of year 3 students, who probably don’t have access to any of these tools, sharing your work?

You do want them to share, right?

This idea of sharing is foundational to everything we do on the Web today.  It becomes painfully obvious when it’s been overlooked.  For example, the iPad version of The Australian had all of the articles of the print version, but you couldn’t share an article with a friend.  There was simply no way to do that.  (I don’t know if this has changed recently.)  That made the iPad version of The Australian significantly less functional than its website version – because there I could at least past a URL into an email.

The more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes.  The more students use your work, the more indispensable you become to the curriculum, and the more likely your services will be needed, year after year, to improve and extend your present efforts.  Sharing isn’t just good design, it’s good business.

II: Connecting

Within the space for being created by the Web, there is room for a crowd.  Sometimes these crowds can be vast and anonymous – Wikipedia is a fine example of this.  Everyone’s there, but no one is wholly aware of anyone else’s presence.  You might see an edit to a page, or a new post on the discussion for a particular topic, but that’s as close as people come to one another.  Most of the connecting for the Wikipedians – the folks who behind-the-scenes make Wikipedia work – is performed by that old reliable friend, email.

There are other websites which make connecting the explicit central point of their purpose.  These are the social networks: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and so on.  In essence they take the Dunbar Number written into each of our minds and make it explicit, digital and a medium for communication.  But it doesn’t end there; one can add countless other contacts from all corners of life, until the ‘social graph’ – that set of connections – becomes so broad it is essentially meaningless.  Every additional contact makes the others less meaningful, if only because there’s only so much of you to go around.

That’s one type of connecting.  There is another type, as typified by Twitter, in which connections are weaker – generally falling outside the Dunbar Number – but have a curious resilience that presents unexpected strengths.  Where you can poll your friends on Facebook, on Twitter you can poll a planet.  How do I solve this problem?  Where should I eat dinner tonight?  What’s going on over there?  These loose but far-flung connections provide a kind of ‘hive mind’, which is less precise, and knows less about you, but knows a lot more about everything else.

These are not mutually exclusive principles.  It’s is not Facebook-versus-Twitter; it is not tight connections versus loose connections.  It’s a bit of both.  Where does your work benefit from a tight collective of connected individuals?  Is it some sort of group problem-solving?  A creative activity that really comes into its own when a whole band of people play together?  Or simply something which benefits from having a ‘lifeline’ to your comrades-in-arms?  When you constantly think of friends, that’s the sort of task that benefits from close connectivity.

On the other hand, when you’re collaborating on a big task – building up a model or a database or an encyclopedia or a catalog or playing a massive, rich, detailed and unpredictable game, or just trying to get a sense of what is going on ‘out there’, that’s the kind of task which benefits from loose connectivity.  Not every project will need both kinds of connecting, but almost every one will benefit from one or the other.  We are much smarter together than individually, much wiser, much more sensible, and less likely to be distracted, distraught or depressed.  (We are also more likely to reinforce each others’ prejudices and preconceptions, but that’s another matter of longstanding which technology can not help but amplify.)  Life is meaningful because we, together, give it meaning.  Life is bearable because we, together, bear the load for one another.  Human life is human connection.

The Web today is all about connecting.  That’s its single most important feature, the one which is serving as an organizing principle for nearly all activity on it.  So how do your projects allow your users to connect?  Does your work leave them alone, helpless, friendless, and lonely?  Does it crowd them together into too-close quarters, so that everyone feels a bit claustrophobic?  Or does it allow them to reach out and forge the bonds that will carry them through?

III: Contributing, Regulating, Iterating

In January of 2002, when I had my first demo of Wikipedia, the site had barely 14,000 articles – many copied from the 1911 out-of-copyright edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.  That’s enough content for a child’s encyclopedia, perhaps even for a primary school educator, but not really enough to be useful for adults, who might be interested in almost anything under the Sun.  It took the dedicated efforts of thousands of contributors for several years to get Wikipedia to the size of Britannica (250,000 articles), an effort which continues today.

Explicit to the design of Wikipedia is the idea that individuals should contribute.  There is an ‘edit’ button at the top of nearly every page, and making changes to Wikipedia is both quick and easy.  (This leaves the door open a certain amount of childish vandalism, but that is easily reversed or corrected precisely because it is so easy to edit anything within the site.)  By now everyone knows that Wikipedia is the collaboratively created encyclopedia, representing the best of all of what its contributors have to offer.  For the next hundred years academics and social scientists will debate the validity of crowdsourced knowledge creation, but what no one can deny is that Wikipedia has become an essential touchstone, our common cultural workbook.  This is less because of Wikipedia-as-a-resource than it is because we all share a sense of pride-in-ownership of Wikipedia.  Probably most of you have made some small change to Wikipedia; a few of you may have authored entire articles.  Every time any of us adds our own voice to Wikipedia, we become part of it, and it becomes part of us.  This is a powerful logic, an attraction which transcends the rational.  People cling to Wikipedia – right or wrong – because it is their own.

It’s difficult to imagine a time will come when Wikipedia will be complete.  If nothing else, events continue to occur, history is made, and all of this must be recorded somewhere in Wikipedia.  Yet Wikipedia, in its English-language edition, is growing more slowly in 2010 than in 2005.  With nearly 3.5 million articles in English, it’s reasonably comprehensive, at least by its own lights.  Certain material is considered inappropriate for Wikipedia – homespun scientific theories, or the biographies of less-than-remarkable individuals – and this has placed limits on its growth.  It’s possible that within a few years we will regard Wikipedia as essentially complete – which is, when you reflect upon it, an utterly awesome thought.  It will mean that we have captured the better part of human knowledge in a form accessible to all.  That we can all carry the learned experience of the species around in our pockets.

Wikipedia points to something else, quite as important and nearly as profound: the Web is not ‘complete’.  It is a work-in-progress.  Google understands this and releases interminable beta versions of every product.  More than this, it means that nothing needs to offer all the answers.  I would suggest that nothing should offer all the answers.  Leaving that space for the users to add what they know – or are willing to learn – to the overall mix creates a much more powerful relationship with the user, and – counterintuitively – with less work from you.  It is up to you to provide the framework for individuals to contribute within, but it is not up to you to populate that framework with every possibility.  There’s a ‘sweet spot’, somewhere between nothing and too much, which shows users the value of contributions but allows them enough space to make their own.

User contributions tend to become examples in their own right, showing other users how it’s done.  This creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ of contributions leading to contributions leading to still more contributions – which can produce the explosive creativity of a Wikipedia or TripAdvisor or an eBay or a RateMyProfessors.com.

In each of these websites it needs to be noted that there is a possibility for ‘bad data’ to work its way into system.   The biggest problem Wikipedia faces is not vandalism but the more pernicious types of contributions which look factual but are wholly made up.  TripAdvisor is facing a class-action lawsuit from hoteliers who have been damaged by anonymous negative ratings of their establishments.  RateMyProfessors.com is the holy terror of the academy in the United States.  Each of these websites has had to design systems which allow for users to self-regulate peer contributions.  In some cases – such as on a blog – it’s no more than a ‘report this post’ button, which flags it for later moderation.  Wikipedia promulgated a directive that strongly encouraged contributors to provide a footnote linking to supporting material.  TripAdvisor gives anonymous reviewers a lower ranking.  eBay forces both buyers and sellers to rate each transaction, building a database of interactions which can be used to guide others when they come to trade.  Each of these are social solutions to social problems.

Web2.0 is not a technology.  It is a suite of social techniques, and each technique must be combined with a social strategy for deployment, considering how the user will behave: neither wholly good nor entirely evil.  It is possible to design systems and interfaces which engage the better angels of nature, possible to develop wholly open systems which self-regulate and require little moderator intervention.  Yet it is not easy to do so, because it is not easy to know in advance how any social technique can be abused by those who employ it.

This means that aWeb2.0 concept that should guide you in your design work is iteration.  Nothing is ever complete, nor ever perfect.  The perfect is the enemy of the good, so if you wait for perfection, you will never release.  Instead, watch your users, see if they struggle to work within the place you have created for then, or whether they immediately grasp hold and begin to work.  In their more uncharitable moments, do they abuse the freedoms you have given them?  If so, how can you redesign your work, and ‘nudge’ them into better behavior?  It may be as simple as a different set of default behaviors, or as complex as a set of rules governing a social ecosystem.  And although Moses came down from Mount Sinai with all ten commandments, you can not and should not expect to get it right on a first pass.  Instead, release, observe, adapt, and re-release.  All releases are soft releases, everything is provisional, and nothing is quite perfect.  That’s as it should be.

IV: Opening

Two of the biggest Web2.0 services are Facebook and Twitter.  Although they seem to be similar, they couldn’t be more different.  Facebook is ‘greedy’, hoarding all of the data provided by its users, all of their photographs and conversations, keeping them entirely for itself.  If you want to have access to that data, you need to work with Facebook’s tools, and you need to build an application that works within Facebook – literally within the web page.  Facebook has control over everything you do, and can arbitrarily choose to limit what you do, even shut you down your application if they don’t like it, or perceive it as somehow competitive with Facebook.  Facebook is entirely in control, and Facebook holds onto all of the data your application needs to use.

Twitter has taken an entirely different approach.  From the very beginning, anyone could get access to the Twitter feed – whether for a single individual (if their stream of Tweets had been made public), or for all of Twitter’s users.  Anyone could do anything they wanted with these Tweets – though Twitter places restrictions on commercial re-use of their data.  Twitter provided very clear (and remarkably straightforward) instruction on how to access their data, and threw the gates open wide.

Although Facebook has half a billion users, Twitter is actually more broadly used, in more situations, because it has been incredibly easy for people to adapt Twitter to their tasks.  People have developed computer programs that send Tweets when the program is about to crash, created vast art projects which allow the public to participate from anywhere around the world, or even a little belt worn by a pregnant woman which sends out a Tweet every time the baby kicks!  It’s this flexibility which has made Twitter a sort of messaging ‘glue’ on the Internet of 2010, and that’s something Facebook just can’t do, because it’s too closed in upon itself.  Twitter has become a building block: when you write a program which needs to send a message, you use Twitter.  Facebook isn’t a building block.  It’s a monolith.

How do you build for openness?  Consider: another position the user might occupy is someone trying to use your work as a building block within their own project.  Have you created space for your work to be re-used, to be incorporated, to be pieced apart and put back together again?  Or is it opaque, seamless, and closed?  What about the data you collect, data the user has generated?  Where does that live?  Can it be exported and put to work in another application, or on another website?  Are you a brick or are you a brick wall?

When you think about your design – both technically and from the user’s experience – you must consider how open you want to be, and weigh the price of openness (extra work, unpredictability) against the price of being closed (less useful).  The highest praise you can receive for your work is when someone wants to use it in their own. For this to happen, you have to leave the door open for them.  If you publish the APIs to access the data you collect; if you build your work modularly, with clearly defined interfaces; if you use standards such as RSS and REST where appropriate, you will create something that others can re-use.

One of my favorite lines comes from science fiction author William Gibson, who wrote, ‘The street finds its own uses for things – uses the manufacturer never imagined.’  You can’t know how valuable your work will be to someone else, what they’ll see in it that you never could, and how they’ll use it to solve a problem.

All of these techniques – sharing, connecting, contributing, regulating, iterating and opening – share a common thread: they regard the user’s experience as paramount and design as something that serves the user.  These are not precisely the same Web2.0 domains others might identify.  That’s because Web2.0 has become a very ill-defined term.  It can mean whatever we want it to mean.  But it always comes back to experience, something that recognizes the importance and agency of the user, and makes that the center of the work.

It took us the better part of a decade to get to Web2.0; although pieces started showing up in the late 1990s, it wasn’t until the early 21st century that we really felt confident with the Web as an experience, and could use that experience to guide us into designs that left room for us to explore, to play and to learn from one another.  In this decade we need to bring everything we’ve learned to everything we create, to avoid the blind traps and dead ends of a design which ignores the vital reality of the people who work with what we create.  We need to make room for them.  If we don’t, they will make other rooms, where they can be themselves, where they can share what they’ve found, connect with the ones they care about, collaborate and contribute and create.

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