What's Wrong with Web 2.0? 11 November, 2006 — Stuart Brown
Bubble? What bubble?
Aside from the fact that nobody knows quite what Web 2.0 actually is, not everything is sweet-smelling in the latest wave of websites. Web 2.0 is a mixed bag of great successes, swathes of unmentioned failures, and squandered venture capital. But what is it that lurks rotten at the bottom of Web 2.0?
User driven content: Now all we need is users
The general consensus on Web2.0 is that there must be some 'social' aspect - whether it's allowing users to create content, or just comments on a blog, allowing such interaction on a site very much puts it in the 'Web2' category.
Some sites depend almost entirely on users - Digg.com, for instance, is one site which is absolutely dependent on its users. If no-one submits any links, or 'diggs' a story, then there is no Digg.
YouTube is similar in this respect - if people suddenly stop uploading their videos, the value in YouTube disappears along with the users. In these two cases, the sites in question are well above 'critical mass' - but there are many, many sites out there which are dependent on users which fall below such a size.
These are the sites that perish, usually for no reason other than the fact that they don't have the users to sustain an interesting site. Most of the failures of Web 2.0 are the small guys - no venture capital, limited resources, no marketing budget or connections.
With all the hype of Web 2.0, we hear of great ideas and startups almost daily - but how many of them remain popular a year later, and how many attain a 'critical mass' to sustain viable traffic? Surely it is not as many as the hype would justify.
Imitation is not innovation
Worse still, the Web 2.0 waters are muddied somewhat by swathes of wannabes and clones, all suckered in by promises of countless wealth and kudos amongst the general internet population.
It's the more successful Web 2.0 sites that get copied - the number of Digg clones out there is staggering - even some high profile companies like Netscape have adopted a Digg-like strategy to social news, and newer startups like ShoutWire offer a slightly different slant on the now-established Digg theme.
These clones are helped by the availability of open-source adaptations of the software - the most popular Digg-clone being Pligg (having its roots in Spanish site Meneame), offering most of the features we're familiar with in an easy-to install package.
Normally I'd approve of this liberation of software from the shackles of closed-source apps, and I do, at least to a certain extent, but the trendiness of the Digg clone is the cause of it's own downfall - you can't have social news without a strong userbase, and you can't hit the ground running unless you get some serious traffic.
So the average socially driven startup will have to be particularly innovative or warranting of link love to succeed. And the general rule is, if there's a shortcut or an open source version of the website you wish to run, then there's probably hundreds of others battling for the same users you will be.
In short, Digg clones can't work, nor can YouTube clones, nor Myspace, without some significant innovation or twist added.
The maddening crowd
Perhaps worse than a lack of users is too many - veteran Useneters will perhaps recall 'Eternal September' back in 1993, when the AOL floodgates opened to the previously pleasant-mannered and more intelligent Usenet, the quality of discussion took a rapid nosedive.
The same trend appears to apply to Web 2.0 - early adopters are of the more technical persuasion, but when a community reaches a point where the great unwashed start signing up, the average IQ can suddenly take a massive plunge.
Case in point: Digg was once extremely tech-oriented, and the comments and submissions reflected this. Since Digg made it big, a quick glance down any of the comments on a submission will confirm what many of you perhaps already know: The internet is full of idiots.
Within any social circle of a certain size or more, you'll see a few certain subcultures emerge - there's the snobby regulars, the trolls, and those who will pick arguments with everyone willing to give them the time (Fanboyism being a particularly good example of this).
One interesting phenomenon with YouTube (amongst others) is the extraordinary amount of people who doubt the veracity of any given video. Perhaps it's those that were left devastated by the unsheathing of lonelygirl15, that now browse aimlessly through the site, shouting 'FAKE!' at every video that features something vaguely interesting.
It is a sad truth that the greater the number of people on any given website, the lower the overall standard. Need proof? Just log onto MySpace.
Good lord, it's made of people!
Is Web 2.0 really just about the social internet? Some cynics would say it's more about the money, but the less said about that the better.
With the possible detriments of a socially-driven website, and the difficulties in establishing a virtual community, we may very well see a backlash away from Web 2.0. But does a site have to have such elements to be part of this new wave?
One thing that's more important for a site than a community - and this has always been true, right back to the dawn of HTML - is individual user experience. A study into web response times shows that a site must respond within 4 seconds to be deemed acceptable, and that even delays of sub 1 second can be detrimental to a site's experience.
Such a response time can be tricky with highly-trafficked websites - Digg can go from sub-1 second response times to anywhere over 10 seconds, and with MySpace it can take minutes to pull up the page you want. Victims of their own success, perhaps - but if the most popular sites offer a sub-par user experience, what hope is there?
It's a Catch 22 type situation - new startups don't have the community nor the marketing budgets, and established sites are buckling under the strain of the traffic.
And so therein lies the catch - the small guys can't get in, and the big fish continue to lie rotten in the sun. And that's what's wrong with Web 2.0.