Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

On Attempting an Updated Definition of "Web 2.0"

On Attempting an Updated Definition of "Web 2.0"

By Dennis D. McDonald

“Web 2.0” is one of those terms that just won’t die. Even as some have tried to invent and sell newer-sounding terms like “web 3.0,” there are still many for whom the underlying concepts of “web2.0” and social media are new, unfamiliar, or ready to be revisited after an initial or limited exposure.

I recently had an opportunity to provide an updated definition of “web 2.0” for a consulting project. The project, managed by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), is called Changing the Conversation: From Research to Action. I had written about this project’s precursor in 2008’s Can Social Media Help Change the Public’s Perception of the Engineering Profession?

The current project, funded by the National Science Foundation, has these objectives:

  1. Develop, with significant engineering community input, an online “toolkit” containing messaging-related resources, community-building applications, and other resources to support the project goal;
  2. Facilitate dialog between organizations that have developed implementation strategies for the new engineering messages and influential stakeholders in the engineering community that have not yet implemented the messages.
  3. Create and disseminate an “Action Plan” that will guide adoption and use of the online toolkit and encourage coordinated outreach to the public by the broader engineering community.

I’m advising on the use of “web 2.0” techniques to support project management and outreach efforts which are supported by the project’s own content management system and web site, both of which are under development. These resources will focus on the communication of positive messages to students, teachers, and parents about Engineering as a career.

I was asked recently to supply a definition of “web 2.0” to help participants understand and appreciate how we’re planning to use a range of communication and collaboration tools to support the project. Starting with definition included in 2007’s Using a Blog for a “Web 2.0” Presentation instead of PowerPoint this is what I wrote:

The term “web 2.0” is nearly a decade old and describes two important dimensions of web based communication:

  1. Web 2.0 as Technology Platform. When used this way, Web 2.0 refers to the ways computer hardware, software, and networks can be used to deliver sophisticated interactive processes over the World Wide Web to anyone with an Internet connection. Hallmarks of Web 2.0 technology are (1) the rapidity with which sophisticated interactive data-handling applications can be developed, (2) the ease with which data from different systems can be combined for access over the web, and (3) relative independence from specific types of computers, operating systems, or mobile devices.
  2. Web 2.0 as Communication Process. When used this way, Web 2.0 refers to the ways people can use the web to easily publish information (sometimes called “content”) online, share that information with others, and develop relationships and communicate interactively with people who share common interests. Often these behaviors are individualistic, spontaneous, and highly decentralized.

“Social media” as a companion term to “web 2.0” refers to the increasingly open and social nature of web based communications. Sometimes traditional media adopt “social media” characteristics, an example being when a newspaper not only publishes its original content online but also encourages readers to discuss its articles online and, in some cases, to add and report events alongside postings by professional journalists.

Perhaps the most significant feature of “web 2.0” systems is that just about anyone can use them to share and discuss almost any topic. They don’t require the same level of support that older and more structured websites, computer networks, and software applications require. Using today’s online resources (like the ones discussed below) just about anyone can publish online and carry on extended conversations with groups with like-minded individuals. These groups can be large, small, temporary, or permanent.

One of the single most significant byproducts of this “ease of use” of social media and web 2.0 based systems is how availability of such systems can shift the balance of power from system creators to system users. Once something is published online and discussions and conversations start taking place, traditional concepts of centralized control, ownership, and authority can become irrelevant. The resulting ascendancy of the role of the “community” over hierarchical authority requires an adjustment.

I followed the above with discussions of how specific tools such as blogs, Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter can be used to support the Changing the Conversation project.

As I was writing the above I was struck by how much has changed since 2007. We’ve seen the rise of Facebook and Twitter as well as corporate adoption of “enterprise 2.0” collaboration systems. We’ve also seen the rapid adoption of social media to support public relations and advertising.

Add to these the rise of location-supported mobile applications, increasing market share for “smartphones,” and the rapid evolution of competing platforms like iPhone and Android. The result is an increasingly complex media landscape in which a project such as NAE’s Changing the Conversation and its website will need to operate.

However we define terms, today’s rich media landscape is where tomorrow’s engineers are growing up. Using these tools to reach them with factual and positive information about Engineering just makes sense.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald

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