Payday for the free internet

Becky Hogge
14 March 2006

Hire a management consultant these days and, regardless of what industry you happen to be in, it won't be long before they start talking Web 2.0 at you. It's at moments like these that technologists wince and look away. Once your CEO starts airing about the office, flashing special editions of the Financial Times under your nose and asking if you use del.icio.us, you know the romance of a new web trend is dead.

Web 2.0 – which translates out of geek speak into "an improved version of the World Wide Web" – is a term that's been knocking about the coffee houses of San Francisco for a few years now. In 2004 it was hijacked by online publishing guru Tim O'Reilly, after a brainstorming session with him and his buddies grew into an annual conference of the geeky and the good on the future of the web.

Still it's fair to say that Web 2.0 was just another meme suspended in the collective O'Reilly consciousness until first Flickr, then Skype, then del.icio.us were bought up by the likes of Yahoo! and eBay during 2005. Then on 9 March 2006, Google gave the game away and bought Writely! – an online word processor that lets you collaborate and store documents on the web. The giants of online have been hoovering up startups in such a convincing manner and for so much cash that misguided ITV executives panicked and bought Friends Reunited for £120m. Oops.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor. Her writing on music, technology and intellectual property law has been published in several national and international publications, including the Guardian, Index On Censorship and Dazed and Confused.

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

So what exactly is this magic Web 2.0 stuff? It can be defined in all sorts of ways. Centrally, it sees websites connecting their services to one another not just through hypertext links but through dynamic interaction enabled by such features as RSS feeds and open application programming interfaces (open APIs). An example of the latter is Google Maps API, which lets new code (web applications) shift content from place to place around the web without action from the user.

On top of this, many Web 2.0 applications benefit from the networked environment, letting the "network effect" of lots of users submitting data to the site enrich the web experience and bring more users on board in a virtuous circle. Web 2.0 – by putting applications online rather than on the desktop – also allows rapid innovation and new code releases. Users do not have to download updates to their favourite application onto their own desktop in order to benefit from new developments; instead they simply visit the website they always visit and receive a better service.

Sites like Digg and Newsvine – both newssheets created and edited solely by users – as well as social networks like MySpace (property: Rupert Murdoch) and dynamic homepage generators like Netvibes and Google Homepage are all good examples of what people mean when they say Web 2.0. But established internet players like Amazon and eBay also fit the definition.

Geeks first, suits later

Indeed what's interesting about Web 2.0 is how neatly it fits into the general philosophy of open standards, of end-to-end principle, and of "small pieces loosely joined", that has been playing to the in-crowd since before the dotcom bust. Much like the furniture at openDemocracy's London office – salvaged from web startups that went under in 2001 – many of the key players in Web 2.0 are dotcom boomers in new, more frugal clothing, returning to apply lessons learned in the new golden age of the web.

Take a look at some examples. Letting users create content for your site isn't too far away from letting programmers take a look at your code – one of the defining tenants of open source projects like Firefox and Linux. Capitalising on the network effects of lots of users adding content to your site (as Wikipedia does) is the same as capitalising on lots of programmers using your code (according to the maxim "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow")

And on the flipside, allowing coders to use your code for their own purpose by providing APIs is the same "remix" philosophy as Creative Commons's approach to content. The Google Map API is perhaps the best example of this – because Google allowed anybody to view and copy their code, hundreds of projects started using the interactive world map to show the geographical distribution of anything from sports fixtures to sex offenders.

Much as Eric S Raymond rebranded Free Software as Open Source before Netscape released the code to what would become Mozilla Firefox, the open standards of the web are being repackaged as Web 2.0 for a Wall Street audience.

The news couldn't be better for those that support open content. Finally, instead of talking about Orwellian futures when information is locked down by the few under pre-digital intellectual-property laws, positive examples of the great things that can happen when content is open are visible for even the hardened technophobe.

One man who should be particularly pleased is Christian Ahlert, public project lead of Creative Commons England and Wales and founding member of Open Business, an innovative project that collects information on business models used by the new breed of online publishers that are slowly populating the web.

At its offices in Bethnal Green, east London last week, I quizzed Christian on the philosophy behind Open Business. He explained that, whilst he was working on Creative Commons, many commentators were equating the scheme with communism. But he was sure it could also work in the capitalist world of business: "the traditional publishing model needs and supports huge intermediaries, but the network and the digital form can support a different structure."

That structure has less to do with the units of production of the old industrial model, and more to do with "attention" – the word everybody left with in their goodie bags from the recent Emerging Technology conference in San Diego.

Once you have your readers' attention, Christian explains, you can capitalise on that in all sorts of ways: "Because there's such an abundance of content out there, the value lies in how you categorise it, how you add value to the content through aggregating it as something that is of interest to you, the reader. So, many of these models are built around learning about your preferences, and creating trusted networks."

And regardless of the business case, the models collected by Open Business still support a diversified cultural landscape, give more share of revenue to individual creators and provide access to high-quality information at a reduced, or zero, cost to the end-user.

Christian Ahlert says: "The creative industries will die if they don't change. You will wake up in a world where you won't have a competitive environment. You can see that lots of growth in the online sphere comes from unlikely players. Three or four years ago, who would have said that Google is a media company? But through its positioning as a platform for accessing and distributing content, it has become very powerful."

Geeks tend to be a bit wary when other people start playing with their toys. But however much we cringe when our boss starts talking to us about Web 2.0, we should stick this one out. Because, thanks to a canny bit of branding from across the ocean, practices which keep content open for use by third parties are finally being understood by the men in suits.

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