A List Apart


Web 3.0

Web 3.0

Google, with the cooperation of prestigious libraries, has been digitizing books to make them findable. The practice excites futurists but angers some publishers. Of necessity, digitization creates virtual copies. The publishers claim that such duplication violates copyright, even if the book’s content is hidden from the public. The New York Public Library, one of Google’s partners in the project, recently hosted a public debate on the subject.

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It was while attending that debate that my discomfort with the hype surrounding an emerging genre of web development turned into a full-blown hate-on.

The big room was packed. There were more ticket holders than chairs. Yet the seat in front of me remained empty. Each time a hopeful standee approached the empty chair—and this happened every few nanoseconds—the poor schmoe seated next to it had to apologetically explain, “Sorry, the seat is occupied.”

It soon became clear that the kindly schmoe was reserving the seat, not for a friend or colleague, but for a stranger who had imposed that duty on him. While the kindly fellow defended the other man’s throne against a steady stream of resentful ticket holders, the stranger was off somewhere knocking back the library’s free champagne. I wondered what kind of jackass would ask someone he didn’t know to save his seat for thirty minutes at an oversold event. When he finally arrived, I found out.

A taste of ass

“Were you at the Web 2.0 conference?” the arriving man asked, by way of thanking the other for saving his place. The kindly schmoe signified in the negative. This was all the encouragement our man needed to launch into an adjective-rich and fact-poor monologue that was loud enough for half the room to hear.

It soon appeared that “Web 2.0” was not only bigger than the Apocalypse but also more profitable. Profitable, that is, for investors like the speaker. Yet the new gold rush must not be confused with the dot-com bubble of the 1990s:

“Web 1.0 was not disruptive. You understand? Web 2.0 is totally disruptive. You know what XML is? You’ve heard about well-formedness? Okay. So anyway—”

And on it ran, like a dentist’s drill in the Gulag.

At first I tolerated the pain by mentally modifying the famous scene from Annie Hall:

HIM:  “I teach a venture capitalist workshop, so I think my insights into XML have a great deal of validity.”

ME:  “Oh, really? Because I happen to have Mr. Bray right here.”

Later I gnawed my knuckles. At some point, in a kind of fever, I may have moaned. Blessedly, at last the lights dimmed and the night’s real speakers redeemed the evening.

But the ass whose braying I’d endured left a bad taste.

Less noise, more signal

Let us now define and disclaim.

The jerk at the library event was in love with his own noise, and the problem with noise is that it interferes with signals. What is the signal? What, if anything, does “Web 2.0” mean? What is the good thing that the hype risks obscuring?

Well, there are several good things, it seems to me.

Some small teams of sharp people—people who once, perhaps, worked for those with dimmer visions—are now following their own muses and designing smart web applications. Products like Flickr and Basecamp are fun and well-made and easy to use.

That may not sound like much. But ours is a medium in which, more often than not, big teams have slowly and expensively labored to produce overly complex web applications whose usability was near nil on behalf of clients with at best vague goals. The realization that small, self-directed teams powered by Pareto’s Principle can quickly create sleeker stuff that works better is not merely bracing but dynamic. As 100 garage bands sprang from every Velvet Underground record sold, so the realization that one small team can make good prompts 100 others to try.

The best and most famous of these new web products (i.e. the two I just mentioned) foster community and collaboration, offering new or improved modes of personal and business interaction. By virtue of their virtues, they own their categories, which is good for the creators, because they get paid.

It is also good for our industry, because the prospect of wealth inspires smart developers who once passively took orders to start thinking about usability and design, and to try to solve problems in a niche they can own. In so doing, some of them may create jobs and wealth. And even where the payday is smaller, these developers can raise the design and usability bar. This is good for everyone. If consumers can choose better applications that cost less or are free, then the web works better, and clients are more likely to request good (usable, well-designed) work instead of the usual schlock.

Of this they spin

In addition to favoring simpler solutions built by leaner teams, the stuff labeled “Web 2.0” tends to have technological commonalities.

On the back end, it is most often powered by open source technologies like PHP or (especially) Ruby on Rails.

On the front end, it is mainly built with web standards—CSS for layout, XML for data, XHTML for markup, JavaScript and the DOM for behavior—with a little Microsoft stuff thrown in.

When web standards with a little Microsoft stuff thrown in are used to create pages that can interact with the server without refreshing, the result is web apps that feel peppy and, dare we say it, Flash-like. In a white paper that actually got read, writer/consultant Jesse James Garrett named what I’ve just described. He called it AJAX, and the acronym not only took, it helped interactivity powered by these technologies gain traction in the marketplace.

Here is where the spinners bedazzle the easily confused. Consider this scenario:

Steven, a young web wiz, has just celebrated his bar mitzvah. He received a dozen gifts and must write a dozen thank-you notes. Being webbish, he creates an on-line “Thank-You Note Generator.” Steven shows the site to his friends, who show it to their friends, and soon the site is getting traffic from recipients of all sorts of gifts, not just bar mitzvah stuff.

If Steven created the site with CGI and Perl and used tables for layout, this is the story of a boy who made a website for his own amusement, perhaps gaining social points in the process. He might even contribute to a SXSW Interactive panel.

But if Steven used AJAX and Ruby on Rails, Yahoo will pay millions and Tim O’Reilly will beg him to keynote.

Who weeps for AJAX?

We pause but a moment to consider two AJAX-related headaches.

The first afflicts people who make websites. Wireframing AJAX is a bitch. The best our agency has come up with is the Chuck Jones approach: draw the key frames. Chuck Jones had an advantage: he knew what Bugs Bunny was going to do. We have to determine all the things a user might do, and wireframe the blessed moments of each possibility.

The second problem affects all who use an AJAX-powered site. If web signifiers and conventions are still in their infancy, then AJAX-related signifiers and conventions are in utero. I am still discovering features of Flickr. Not new features—old ones. You find some by clicking in empty white space. This is like reading the news by pouring ACME Invisible Ink Detector on all pieces of paper that cross your path until you find one that has words on it.

I am not knocking Flickr. I love Flickr. I wish I were as gifted as the people who created it. I’m merely pointing out complex design problems that will not be solved overnight or by a single group. In Ma.gnolia, which is now in beta, we used small icons to indicate that additional actions could be taken and to hint at what those actions might be. We succeeded to the extent that 16px by 16px drawings can communicate such concepts as “you may edit these words by clicking on them.”

These problems and others will be solved, most likely by someone reading this page. One points to these issues mainly to dent a swelling of unthinking euphoria. We have been down this road before.

Bubble, bubble

When I started designing websites, if the guy on the plane next to me asked what I did, I had to say something like “digital marketing” if I wanted to avoid the uncomprehending stare.

A few years later, if I told the passenger beside me I was a web designer, he or she would regard me with a reverence typically reserved for Stanley-Cup-winning Nobel Laureate rock stars.

Then the bubble burst, and the same answer to the same question provoked looks of pity and barely concealed disgust. I remember meeting a high-rolling entrepreneur in the early 2000s who asked what I did. I should have told him I hung around playgrounds, stealing children’s lunch money. He would have had more respect for that answer.

I hated the bubble. I hated it when Vanity Fair or New York Magazine treated web agency founders like celebrities. I hated that mainstream media and the society it informs either ignored the web or mistook it for a high-stakes electronic version of the fashion industry.

When the bubble burst, these same geniuses decided the web was of no interest at all. Funny, to me it was more interesting than ever. To me it was people and organizations publishing content that might not otherwise have seen light. It was small businesses with realistic goals delivering value and growing. It was traditional publishers finding their way into a new digital medium, helped by folks like you and me. It was new ways of talking and sharing and loving and selling and healing and being. Hardly dull.

Eventually the uninformed stopped seeing a wasteland and started seeing bloggers, by which they meant only those bloggers who wrote about politics, most often from the extreme left or right. The web was “back” even though it had never left. (Of course, the fifth time you hear Wolf Blitzer say “blogger” or ask, “what do the bloggers have to tell us about these still-unfolding events?” the joke is stale and you wish those who don’t get the web would go back to ignoring it.)

But nothing, not even the rants of political bloggers, was as exciting as the scent of money. As the first properly valued “Web 2.0” properties began to find buyers, a frenzy like the old one popped hideously back to life. Yahoo spent how much? Google bought what? Here was real blood in the water.

But how to persuade the other sharks in the tank that this blood feast was different from the previous boom-and-bust? Easy: Dismiss everything that came before as “Web 1.0.”

It’s only castles burning

To you who are toiling over an AJAX- and Ruby-powered social software product, good luck, God bless, and have fun. Remember that 20 other people are working on the same idea. So keep it simple, and ship it before they do, and maintain your sense of humor whether you get rich or go broke. Especially if you get rich. Nothing is more unsightly than a solemn multi-millionaire.

To you who feel like failures because you spent last year honing your web skills and serving clients, or running a business, or perhaps publishing content, you are special and lovely, so hold that pretty head high, and never let them see the tears.

As for me, I’m cutting out the middleman and jumping right to Web 3.0. Why wait?

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