Bluffer’s guide to Web 2.0

Web 2.0 is a term referring to a new generation of web/browser based applications that allow people to interact in ways previously not possible. Enterprise 2.0 is the use of Web 2.0 applications within the enterprise.

There are many aspects to Web 2.0 but I’ve picked four fundamentals: emergence, openness, relationships and aggregation. Then I’ll look at a couple of specific Web 2.0 application and show how these fundamentals play out.



Emergence is the appearance of an overall structure that results from local disconnected interactions.

The classic example given for emergence is a colony of ants. There is no central control, no overall organisation, yet through the individual interactions of the ants they organise themselves into an organism that collects food, builds a nest and defends against attack.

Tools classed as Web 2.0 (at least the ones that are interesting) allow, even encourage, a structure to emerge through the way in which people interact with the tool. The term often used is Social Software, but it is probably worth delineating further by calling it Emergent Social Software.


There are many technologies that allow people to generate and view content. These can be split into two broad camps, channels and platforms. Channels create a private flow of information between producer and consumer (sender and receiver), for examples telephone, instant messaging (Sametime) and email. Platforms expose content to all members in a community, for example Intranet sites.

With channels, everyone is able to produce content and everyone is receiving content. However, there is no commonality in the content. What you see through your channel is different to what I see in mine. On the other hand the number of people able to produce content on platforms is often restricted to a few; yet what people see when reading the information is the same – i.e. high level of commonality.

As people paid to generate information and knowledge we will tend towards the tool that lets us express what we need to say – even if it means compromising on the extent of the visibility of that communication. I write an email on some matter and, despite thinking it should be widely read, send it only to those people I think will be really interested – I don’t want to be accused of spamming. I feel good, at least I get my message out, yet it has not been as effective as it could have been.

Web 2.0 tools break down the barriers between channels and platforms; creating platforms on which everyone can participate. Chaos, you might think, but look at the ants.

[The contrasting of channels and platforms is something I get from reading Andrew McAfee’s work – his blog is one I follow.]

Network effect

The term Network effects describes the increasing value to the whole as more entities are joined in. The participation of an individual benefits not just that individual, but the broader population of participants. Web 2.0 tools seek to lower the barriers to participation. Given the right community this enables effects like The Wisdom of Crowds – the many are smarter than the few.

The way in which Web 2.0 tools utilise the contribution of the individual often leads these applications to highlight the relationships formed between people. Some tools focus entirely on utilising who you know to benefit others; building relationships between the people who know the people you know.


A necessary result of breaking down barriers and the encouragement of contribution is an explosion of content. Enabling people to sift through that content, to harness what the input of others is a challenge; in reality is already a problem. Web 2.0 tools make significant use of technologies that enable the flow of information.

RSS is an alerting mechanism that helps to draw and maintain attention, and thereby contribution, over the long term.

Mashups take exposed data from multiple sources and join them together in meaningful ways. For example, Google maps mashed with property details from an estate agent.

This reaches into the realms of Service Oriented Architecture.



Put simply a blog is a tool that easily enables the production of content and publication to a web page. It makes making a thought, idea or opinion visible to all as easy as writing an email. Reducing this barrier (ease of production) and providing the platform (a place to put it) is the power of a blog. Giving the ability to readers to post back comments encourages contribution.

However, the true power is in the mix of the blogosphere – i.e. all the blogs and bloggers and their interaction with one another and their readers. For example, if one blogger posts a references to the post of another blogger, that reference appears as a comment on the “referred-to” post – called a trackback. Bloggers will often put a list their favourite bloggers on their blog – called a blogroll. Following trackbacks or going to sites on the Blogroll leads you to the blog of someone who ‘knows’ the person you ‘know’.


A wiki is like a blank notebook, without content or structure. A community of contributors with a common purpose (see the Four elements required to form a wise crowd) are able to easily place content into the wiki and create links between content. In this way a structure emerges. Wikis have proved immensely powerful as a tool for collaboration and .

Tagging and bookmarking

Traditional search engines identify content through the use of keywords; counting occurrences, noting proximity. Knowledge management tools often use predefined categories into which information must be dropped – a taxonomy. The term folksonomy is given to describe the (free form) tagging of information by the producer.

Several sites focus on picking up this tagged information, or utilise tagging, to identify emerging structures. is a web based bookmarking site – not much more complicated than a web based IE Favorites menu. Rather than using categories (like creating subfolders in your favorites menu) it makes it very easy to tag the bookmarks. By using the collective behaviour of the entire community something much bigger emerges. For example, when I bookmark a link it is able to suggest tags that others have used, or by profiling things I have bookmarked against others it can suggest other sites that might also interest me.

Technorati tracks 50million+ blogs. One of the things it does is extract the tags associated with each blog posts. As people go about their daily lives posting to their blogs and tagging the post, Technocrati extracts that and builds the emergent structure – e.g. what’s hot now. At the moment, for example, tags like bush, china, halloween, iraq, north korea and wordpress are popular.



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