Web 2.0: The Power Behind the Hype

by Jared M. Spool

Unwittingly, Paul Rademacher made history by fooling around in his free time. In an act reminiscent of early Reese’s candy commercials, Paul married the data from’s real estate listings with Google Maps to create an interactive housing viewer. What makes this story real interesting is that this little application has nothing to do with Paul’s real job—a software engineer for animation company DreamWorks. He just whipped this little application up as a hobby.

Meanwhile, in another part of the cyberworld, Jon Udell, a writer for InfoWorld, has been playing with bookmarklets to provide an interface between books listed on Amazon and whether they are available in his local public library. With a minimum of effort, Jon has created a connection between two data repositories that were never originally intended to work together.

The speed and ease at which these new applications were built is what is getting us very excited about the potential of the Web 2.0 world. Evocative of Dr. Frankenstein building a monster in his attic laboratory using body pieces he found lying around his neighborhood, people with a little skill can create new applications using common elements found lying around the Web in almost no time at all. As the skill requirements for building these applications are decreasing, we think this opens a whole new world of possibilities.

Web 2.0 isn’t a ‘thing’, but a collection of approaches, which are all converging on the development world at a rapid pace. These approaches, including APIs, RSS, Folksonomies, and Social Networking, suddenly give application developers a new way to approach hard problems with surprisingly effective results.

The Power of APIs

One tool that is making this all possible is the increasing availability of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The Google Maps API allows anybody the power to overlay any data onto any place Google Maps can show. People are overlaying crime data, displaying contagious virus reports, and creating interfaces to allow people to track their daily walks.

Because the Google Maps API provides a rich interface, developers of these new applications don’t have to dedicate resources to building a mapping system and populating it with geographic data. That’s all provided already. Instead, the developers can focus on their data source and how they want to overlay it.

Providing a programming interface isn’t new. Microsoft, for example, has had APIs available for its Office suite of tools for many years. But their APIs were extremely complex and subject to dramatic changes with each new release. Therefore, it was rare to find any applications built on top of the Office APIs.

This new generation of APIs, from Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, the BBC, and others, is at a higher level of abstraction for more niche information. For example, Andale produces reports of the hottest selling products on eBay, using eBay’s API to extract the data, to help sellers identify and price their products.

It isn’t just the big boys who are creating these APIs. The designers of Kiko, a new AJAX calendar application, are promising to have APIs available fairly soon. Even specialized niche applications are starting to make APIs available.

Years ago, the inventors of object-oriented systems and standardized libraries made a promise that, someday, we could quickly assemble applications out of their component parts. Until now, that potential has remained at arms’ length. It’s possible that this new generation of APIs could help us finally fulfill that promise.

RSS as an Interface

The simplicity of Google Maps’ API allowed Paul Rademacher to focus on his real estate data source. However, that didn’t require much effort, since Craigslist provides up-to-the-minute listing data as an RSS feed.

RSS (which stands for RDF Site Summary, but often referred to as Really Simple Syndication) is a computer-generated data-file format that sites use to communicate their contents to other sites and applications. Using a really simple definition structure, (thus the name,) RSS makes it easy for developers to extract and integrate data from other sources into their own.

For example, Airtight Interactive’s Flickr Related Tag Browser takes an RSS feed of a user-supplied search term and generates an alternative interface to browsing pictures on Flickr. Alternatively, the Marumushi Newsmap reads the headlines from Google News and displays topics to explore patterns in how stories are emphasized in the media.

Folksonomies: A Poor-Man’s Taxonomy

Every time publishes a new article, which they do a dozen times a day, the editors post the URL to the InfoWorld user id on the bookmark service. With each article, they add relevant tags, such as “IBM”, “blogging”, and “search”, based on the content of the article. Anyone can use to keep track of the latest InfoWorld stories on their favorite topic, such as Microsoft Office.

In addition to giving users quick access, the editors gain other benefits from having tagged each article. The tags give them an immediate, informal information architecture for categorizing related articles. They can also inspect the tags that readers give the same topics and get a quick measure of an article’s importance by seeing how many different people post the article to the bookmark archive.

This style of community tagging, commonly referred to as a Folksonomy, allows a site to create an alternative categorization scheme, created by the users of that site. While less accurate than other styles of organizing a site, it’s appealing because it involves the entire user population in the categorization process. You can think of it as a continuous, full-site card sorting exercise that produces a dynamic, live navigation scheme as the users sort the cards.

Dinnerbuzz is a new site, allowing users to review and rate their favorite local restaurants. In addition to describing the venue, the site lets them apply tags describing the restaurant’s cuisine, appearance, and even favorite dishes. This way, a user hankering for a delicious Moo Shi dish in San Francisco can quickly find where to find the best Chinese restaurants.

The new dating site, ConsuMating, lets people looking for a date assign tags to themselves in addition to allowing friends and acquaintances augment their tags. People are using tags with hobbies, favorite musical groups, and books they’ve recently read to quickly sort through the list of potential candidates for new relationships.

The speed at which a folksonomy-powered site can establish a relevant (albeit extremely simplistic) taxonomy is awe inspiring. As Hurricane Katrina started on its path of destruction, pictures started flooding into Flickr, all easily identified with the “Katrina” tag. As the days have progressed, the additional pictures have told a fascinating story that has been unmatched by any of the more formal news services.

Social Networking: Establishing Connections

In a tradition started by the now defunct and followed quickly by Friendster, social networking is the power added to an application when users specifically designate their relationship to other users of the same site or application.

In a typical networked application, there is just your data and everyone else’s. You can browse your data and you can ask to review all the data everyone has entered.

However, when you introduce a social network into the mix, you can separate out the people in your inner circle from those people you don’t know. And sometimes, that separation adds tremendous value.

The photo sharing, Flickr, probably has the simplest social networking capabilities we’ve seen. As a user peruses the images of other users, they can designate those users as a “contact”. Once a contact, Flickr makes is easier to see any new images from those users. Contacts can also be designated as “Friend” or “Family”, allowing users to have images that they only show to close connection. (Images of the baby taking a bath may only be of interest to family connections, whereas images of last night’s toga party may only be of interest to friends.)

Netflix, the DVD rental site, takes the social network a step further. Once two people agree they are connected, Netflix will share specific information, such as movie reviews, recommendations, recently rented videos, and what movies are currently waiting in their rental queue. As users look at prospective movies to watch, icons designate those movies that their friends have seen and how they felt about them.

LinkedIn is one of the more advanced social networking sites. Users enter their professional history, listing jobs and other activities relative to their professional growth path. As they conduct business, they add their professional connections to their network. The ever growing network allows these professionals to take advantage of who-knows-who, making introductions for new business opportunities and job hunting more effective.

Putting Web 2.0 to Work, Quickly

APIs, RSS, Folksonomies, and Social Networking have been around for a while. What’s interesting to us right now is that our current understanding of them and the tools available to implement them make it possible to create powerful applications very fast and relatively inexpensively.

Fast and cheap is the formula for quick iterations. Tools that give us quick iterations lead to better user experiences. This is why this new Web 2.0 architecture has captured our attention.

For example, the current set of mapping APIs are already becoming essential tools for teams involved in the Hurricane Katrina rescue and recovery efforts. It wouldn’t be hard for a relief agency to put together simple system to read the feeds of search and rescue activities and combine them with a map, showing up-to-the-minute images of which areas have been searched and which still need attention.

With a little imagination, we could imagine how relief agency volunteers tag important documents, such as news stories, photos, and emails, to ensure that the ever growing flow of relevant information is easily categorized and simple for others to discover. And we could see how relief workers could use a growing social network to keep them in touch with members from other agencies and departments, to quick access to important resources, such as helicopters and medical assistance.

In the past, the architectures to build out such a vast application would probably not have been cost effective. But, because of the recent advances and the modularity of the Web 2.0 architecture, rich user experiences are within easy reach.

Not All Rosy: Much Work to Be Done

The Web 2.0 architecture still needs much work. The available programming interfaces are crude and dissimilar, making it hard for developers to jump from one API to the next. Even something as simple as RSS has produced multiple competing formats, resulting in a natural selection process to decide which ones will survive.

As Spiderman’s Uncle Ben pointed out, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Just because we can do all these things doesn’t mean we should do them. In the early 1980’s, the cheap availability of laser printers and digital fonts produced a plethora of documents that more resembled ransom notes than professional publications. We could easily imagine designers going wild with the capabilities of this new technology and not using the restraint necessary to ensure they produce an optimal experience.

Finally, we predict we’ll run into what we call the kitchen organization problem. While we all know where we’ve put the glasses and plates in our own kitchens, it takes only a trip to a friend’s house to realize that not everyone organizes their kitchens the same way. Folksonomies and social networks make it easy to share, but if we all organize our own information with our own evolved structures, chaos is bound to emerge when these conflicting structures are merged on a massive scale.

Working past these issues will take experimentation and time, so we don’t expect to see all of the potential benefits of the Web 2.0 architecture emerge immediately.

The Power behind the Hype

Problems not withstanding, we still feel that this emerging standard, combined with other new tools, such as AJAX and open source infrastructures, makes for a new and exciting environment. There’s been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding all these new developments, but, for once, we are thinking that there really is some power that is beneath the hype that is worth paying attention to.

2016 Editor’s note: Many websites mentioned above, such as Andale and ConsuMating, no longer exist and links to them have been removed.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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