12 minute read

The last entry was the theoretical underpinnings of how this whole web 2.0 thing can work, so today let's get into some of the more common terms you've heard thrown around, what they mean and how they work. We'll start talking about blogs (like this), wikis, social networks, and other crazy web 2.0 tools themselves.

We'll start with crowd-sourcing/peer production/user generated content -- all aspects of, if not straight up copies of the same thing. Peer production is what you generally think of when you think web 2.0; wikipedia is an encyclopedia produced not by an editorial board and professional writers, but by you and me, and thousands of others like us, each shepherding their own causes and topics, with enough critics to keep us honest. Again, a lot of this is just summarizing what Benkler has gone over in greater detail in The Wealth of Networks; I highly recommend flipping/page-downing through that if you're at all going to move into web 2.0 projects. He has a wealth of case studies and good hard data on the power of random website users coming by your site and contributing time and effort to improve your content. Even NASA, a bureaucratic and overworked government agency, has tapped into the power of website users to help identify and label craters on Mars with higher accuracy -- and a whole lot cheaper -- than programs have been able to manage. Properly empowered through low transaction costs and the promise of adding to something larger and greater than they are, users can power your entire website -- just look at craigslist -- a huge, profitable site where people post classified ads. It's nothing pretty, which in turn is part of its popularity; it's quick and down to business, empowering users to add information, flag abuse, and export their specific search requests as RSS streams to their own systems (more, lots more, on RSS later).

Beyond mere content, empowered users can also help create structure; they'll tag (a form of categorization) blogs/articles, photos and videos while they're browsing through them, rate content as good (or bad!), organize bookmarks using del.icio.us or mag.nolia... the possibilities are endless if you can provide the right basic set of tools, and the users have the expectation that they are contributing to something that will continue to grow and flourish.

A good counter-example is the story of cddb. cddb was a public database that let people copying their music CDs to their computers to automatically get the artist name and track titles -- something that iTunes now does automatically, but this hasn't always been such a painless process. cddb got sold and turned into gracenote, which then changed the license to increasingly strict standards, changed the way cddb worked, and eventually blocked out any program that wasn't licensed with the new company using their new format. The users fled and recreated a new free cd database, called freedb, which is still very active and built into many cd ripping softwares, such as CDex. Gracenote is still around, but without any volunteer support now. This extended side-note serves to remind us that if we're going to jump in to using web 2.0 systems, it's best to do it strategically and emphatically. Strategically because not all of your materials, brochures, and news releases should be interactive and peer-produced, (ok, so sure, you can go there, but you should be comfortable with your users and the technologies before opening yourself up so completely). Emphatically because the quickest way to disengage your potential contributors is to only go halfway with a web 2.0 system -- micro-managing, moderating too closely, limiting their access, and so on. If you have a blog, have a full blog, engage in communicating with your readers, let them comment -- and reply to their comments. If you provide some of your content as a wiki, encourage and enable your users to add their own viewpoints, tips, and full articles.

This leads into the next point -- not only do you want to look at web 2.0 projects strategically and emphatically, you want to keep it freely available (unlike the cddb story above) so all your consituents can benefit from the work you and your active users are doing. Keep archives of blogs to create a long-term, ongoing discussion -- don't be afraid to change over time and have "out of date" and "off-message" blog entries, it shows your history and growth. Maintain your web 2.0 projects by responding to comments, tidying up wikis, and making sure your facebook pages, twitter "tweets", and flickr photos are getting constantly updates.

Going beyond maintaining your web 2.0 projects is pro-actively sharing your work with others. This almost always come as a freebie if you're using any of the popular website management tools to create your site, but regardless it's good to look into it and think about where and how you're using and promoting it. RSS provides the current standard of streaming news in and out. RSS can be a quick and easy way to add headline content to your site from your partners. More importantly, RSS can send your headlines out to subscribers, partner sites, Twitter, Facebook, and more. Even better, it's not just news or blog entries; RSS can be a stream of your most recent Flickr photos, YouTube videos, Twitter updates -- any chunk of data that gets generated linearly. Going deeper than RSS feeds, many tools have APIs, which provide a tightly integrated way to embed and interact with complex websites. Google Maps is a great example of this; anyone with a website can embed the full power of Google Maps in their site and link it with their own data. People have combined this with the concept of web 2.0 user-generated content to allow people to add data to the map -- coffeeshops with free wireless Internet, good spots to wind-surf, or even a visual display of craigslist apartment listings. This combination of different web 2.0 technologies is what's often called a mashup, and an increasing number of tools exist to help people combine tools from across the web with your own data and website, such as Yahoo Pipes

A lot of these sharing tools can be thought of a way to replace "copy and paste" -- instead of having visitors to your website who see some fantastic piece of information copy it and paste it somewhere else, you can enable them to pull that resource as an RSS stream from your website, which in turn will bring their readers back to your site. Through this magic of non-rival, non-excludable open sharing, the more you share and give away, the more you get back,; in website hits, spread of your message, engaged users coming back to your site to make comments.

After the end of all of this tech discussion, it's important to remember that it’s about people and communities. Enabling and engaging your website visitors, staff, volunteer, and random-website-visitor content creators, beneficiaries, friends, coworkers, and all of their own networks of contacts. Creation of a community of users who support and encourage each other should be the ultimate goal of any web 2.0 project, as this community creates a sustainable, constantly evolving system. The community by merit of communications technology can and should be globally distributed, organized not by geographic luck but by interest and dedication to a cause or topic. Web 2.0 projects engage users and create a space for communication and communal building and creation, it is not (at least primarily) a platform for traditional, one-way communication -- talking with, not talking to.