23 Things for Archivists

Thing 3: What Is Web 2.0?

By Kate Theimer

This is the best introduction to the general topic of Web 2.0 that I know about:

“Web 2.0” is a buzzword. Like all buzzwords, it gained popularity because it’s useful for capturing the meaning of something. But it also has been over-used and become something of a cliché. The technology cognoscenti have now moved on and are talking about Web 3.0 (the semantic Web), and even Web 4.0. But for most of us, “Web 2.0” accurately describes the Web we know and use.

The origins of the term are a bit disputed, but its most prominent early use was by O’Reilly Media, who sponsored the “Web 2.0” conference in 2004. The term “2.0” refers to the system used by software developers to signify new versions of software—that is, by assigning a new number (rather than using, say, 1.8, or 1.9), the developers signal that this software release has significant changes and differences. “Web 2.0,” then was used to signify that the Web had begun a fundamental change in the way people were able to use it.

There is no agreed upon definition of Web 2.0. While O’Reilly Media may have popularized it, the term was not created by one company or type of software. Rather, it describes a confluence of changes in Web design and functionality that resulted in fundamental differences in the ways developers and users approach the Web. The most significant of these changes are:

  • “Network as platform” or “cloud computing”
  • Open standards, open source, openness in general
  • Creation of syndicated content—use of RSS
  • Customized Web experience for users
  • Broad use of interactivity
  • Prevalence of user-created content
  • Integration of user-to-user connection.

A good example of how these different elements come together is the hugely popular online retail site, amazon.com. Once you create an account, it remembers you and presents you with a customized home page when you enter the site. Based on the products you look at and buy on the site, amazon.com makes recommendations for other products it thinks you may also enjoy. You can customize your own experience by creating shopping or wish lists. You can sign up to have amazon.com contact you when products you are interested in become available. You can also interact with the information Amazon provides by rating products or writing a review. In addition to contributing reviews, you can also publish your own lists and recommendations to share with other users. If you have your own blog or Web site, you can even choose to add a widget to your site that promotes amazon.com products (and generates revenue for you).

Note that according to a recent post on Mashable.com, in 2009 the use of the term “social media” overtook “Web 2.0” in popularity—at least in terms of Google searches. There seems to be no clear consensus on what the difference is between Web 2.0 and social media , but I’ll give it a go—Web 2.0 includes both the infrastructure (the technical aspects of the changes in the Web) and the products that were created with that infrastructure (blogs, Flickr, Twitter, etc.) while social media refers just to the products and how they are used. That may not be quite right, but I think it’s in the right ball park.


  1. […] because I just realized I actually don’t know what it is!” Just take a look at Thing #3 in 23 Things – it’s a great place to […]

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