Tim O’Reilly Course Corrects the Definition of Web 2.0

eBay was Web 2.0 before Web 2.0 was cool.

Tim O’Reilly wrote a nice piece the other day Why Dell.com (was) More Enterprise 2.0 Than Dell IdeaStorm. In the post, he re-asserted the proper definition of Web 2.0. Here’s a quote:

I define Web 2.0 as the design of systems that harness network effects to get better the more people use them, or more colloquially, as “harnessing collective intelligence.” This includes explicit network-enabled collaboration, to be sure, but it should encompass every way that people connected to a network create synergistic effects.

The impetus for Tim’s post was that people leave Google and its search engine off the list of Web 2.0 companies. As Tim writes, seeing the power of what Google’s search engine did was part of the notion of Web 2.0.

Here’s a way to represent what Tim is talking about:

I like that Tim sent out this reminder about Web 2.0. Here’s how Web 2.0 has become defined over the years:

  • Social networking
  • Ad supported
  • Bootstrapped
  • Fun and games
  • Anything that’s a web service

This seems to have fundamentally altered Web 2.0. I’m reminded of a post that Allen Stern wrote back in July, CenterNetworks Asks: How Many Web 2.0 Services Have Gone Mainstream? In that post, he wondered how many Web 2.0 companies will really ever go maintream.

Check out the comments on Allen’s blog and on FriendFeed:

I would say MySpace but that really came before Web 2.0

mainstream – Facebook/hi5/bebo, Flickr, Youtube, Slide, Photobucket, Rockyou

Oh and you’ll have to add Gmail to the list as well.

I’ve yet to see one, really. 😉

Is eBay web 2.0-ish? [this was mine]

Agree with Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. I’d add Blogs as another 2.0 winner. I’d put eBay and Amazon as 1.0 success stories

A better way to ask this is “which web services since 2000 have gone mainstream?” Blogger. Flickr. Gmail. Facebook. MySpace. Digg. YouTube. WordPress. Live Spaces

Look at those responses! You can see a massive disconnect between Tim O’Reilly’s original formulation of Web 2.0 and where we are today.

One example I see in there: Gmail. Gmail is a hosted email application. Does Gmail get better the more people use it? No. There’s no internal Gmail application functionality that makes it better the more people use it. It’s just an email app the way Yahoo Mail is an email app. Being a web service and ad-supported isn’t, strictly speaking, a Web 2.0 company.

Terms do take on a life of their own, and if the societal consensus for a definition changes over time, then that’s the new definition. But the responses to Allen Stern’s post highlight two problems:

  • People discount or ignore key components of the Web 2.0 definition
  • Web 2.0 is slowly coming to mean everything. Which means nothing.

Finally, Tim’s post helps me differentiate the times I should use “social media” as opposed to “Web 2.0”.

What do you think? Should we go back to first principles in defining what really is “Web 2.0”?

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