Early last year at a conference, I held a talk on “5 Years of Web 2.0–A Look Back”. Based on this talk I will shortly summarize what exactly the phenomenon we call Web 2.0 is and how the Internet got there. From there I will try to outline two possible scenarios for the future.
The term Web 2.0 was first coined in 1999 by consultant Darcy DiNucci in her article Fragmented Future . It then reappeared in 2004 and was finally introduced by Tim O’Reilly in his 2005 essay What is Web 2.0 . In it, he uses the term to describe the future, as he saw it, of the World Wide Web. The term, now part of mainstream culture, is somehow misleading, because it implies a new or updated version of the World Wide Web. But there were, and have not been, any technical updates to the Web.
Web 2.0 is a different mindset
So what is the Web 2.0 then? Basically, it refers to websites and web applications made with a different mindset, that leaves the traditional path of old media. It values three core principles: (1) interactive information sharing, (2) interoperability, and (3) user-centered design.
Interactive information sharing is best known as Social Media sites such as Facebook or Flickr. They not only allow people to share all things digital, they also facilitate interaction between users. In fact, users have control over the availability of the things they share. Contrary to old media, their content can be shared one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, or many-to-one. Interoperability on the other hand refers to the ability of diverse systems and organizations to work together (inter-operate). In our context it is strictly used in a technical systems engineering sense. Take the use of Extensible Mark-up Language (XML)  for example. XML provides information in a wide variety of structural formats. It is not dependent on any particular platform (Windows, Mac, or Linux for example) and is therefore inter-operable. Last but not least, User-centered design (or pervasive usability)  is a design philosophy and a process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of end users of a product are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process. To provide true user-centered design, it is necessary for any product to have changeable user interfaces that is appropriate to each user. Web 2.0 websites or applications provide this often through a highly customizable interface.
In short, this different mindset we call Web 2.0 is more about the development of the technologies used rather than the web itself. But it was these technologies that helped the web to evolve from static websites and content into something dynamic and–through its focus on interaction, sharing, and the users–empowering.
A Mindset under pressure: Is there a “counter-revolution” coming?
Now that we live with and some even in this empowering “great unifier of people” , what could it look like in ten years? Will it still be as free–both as in free beer and in free speech–as it is today? Back in September, the Economist ran an interesting piece on this topic. It argues that there is a virtual counter-revolution in the making, one that has powerful forces of fragmentation that are “threatening to balkanise it” [ibid.]. These forces are supposed to be mostly visible along “geographical boundaries” where there’s an Orwellian edge to government interference in the digital realm. Examples that are named are China and it great firewall and India’s and other states’ attempts to bully BlackBerry and other communication-service providers over the control of the data transferred through their networks. The Economist then goes on to talk about net neutrality and proprietary platforms: the plumbing of the internet. In other words, the fact that (a) big companies are setting up their own “digital territories, where they set the rules and control or limit connections” [ibid.] and content, and (b) some internet service providers trying to set up different levels of access so that consumers’ data can be transmitted quickly along the fastest lanes to speed up access only to websites that pay for it.
As over-simplified and therefore flawed the Economist’s view is, in my opinion, there is a real and present danger of a fragmented internet. The most obvious case today is Apple. It is clearly trying to set up a collection of “proprietary islands accessed by devices controlled remotely” [ibid.] by the company. If this trend continues, the internet may lose much of its “generativity” and innovation slows down. We could end up in a truly balkanised online world. No more World Wide Web. People would be forced to use NWW (Nation Wide Webs) or CWW (Corporate Wide Webs) instead. The complete lock-in.
Luckily, we–the users–have it in our hands to prevent this from happening.