The two ways of Web 2.0

I find Web 2.0 increasingly confusing as a label; no surprise there. This is not just because of its essential vagueness, but because I think it tends to be used in a couple of very different ways. Where this happens there is bound to be some confusion. Schematically, I will use the labels ‘diffusion’ and ‘concentration’ for these two ways.
diffusion is probably the more dominant of the two. Here it covers a range of tools and techniques which create richer connectivity between people, applications and data; which support writers as well as readers; which provide richer presentation environments. What tends to get discussed here are blogs and wikis; RSS; social networking; crowdsourcing of content; websites made programmable through web services and simple APIs; simple service composition environments; Ajax, flex, silverlight; and so on.
concentration is a major characteristic of our network experience, which often involves major gravitational hubs (google, amazon, flickr, facebook, These concentrate data, users (as providers and consumers), and communications and computational capacity. They build value by collaboratively sourcing the creation of powerful data assets with their users. The value grows with the reinforcing property of network effects: the more people who participate, the more valuable they become. And opening up these platforms through web services creates more network effects. These sites also mobilize usage data to reflexively adapt their services, to better target particular users or to identify design directions. Of course, these platforms are very closely controlled, and there is an interesting balance of interests between openness and control at various levels in how they manage resources (see for example my discussion of the Amazon and Google APIs).
Interestingly, if you trace Tim O’Reilly’s writings on Web 2.0 since the publication of his major defining article you see an emphasis on what I have called ‘concentration’ come through. (See my note on an interview with Tim O’Reilly by David Weinberger, on which I draw above, and also see O’Reilly blog posts here and here.)
Now, of course ‘concentration’ and ‘diffusion’ are often complementary approaches. The major Internet hubs ‘diffuse’ their benefits through service and data syndication, apis, participation, etc, but their value often derives from successfully driving network effects through wide participation and consolidation of data. In fact, many of the ‘diffusion’ techniques work best when associated with concentrating applications. Think of tagging for example. People have incentives to tag their resources in Flickr or Librarything in ways that may not obtain in the library catalog. Scale matters in the context of the social value created in these services (of course, in these examples, folks are also tagging their own resources). You cannot simply add social networking to a site and expect it to work well. Think of all those empty forums.
Much of the library discussion of Web 2.0 is about ‘diffusion’, about a set of techniques for richer interaction. It is appropriate that libraries should offer an experience that is continuous with how people experience the web.
However, there is a very important way in which the library experience is not continuous with the web. It remains fragmented: it does not have the characteristics of the concentrating, gravitational hubs which characterize so much web use, and are so much a part of O’Reilly’s Web 2.0. Fragmented by database boundary, by service boundary (e.g. connecting a discovery experience gracefully to a fulfillment experience through resolution), by library boundary. We are now familiar with the comparison between this fragmented experience and discovery on the web. And we are also familiar with discussion of how the library presence is weakly represented in the major network presences.
However, think also of the library management environment. Think for example of places where data needs to be concentrated to create value: aggregating user data across sites (e.g. counter data), or aggregating user created data (tags, reviews), or aggregating transactions (e.g. circulations, resolver clickthroughs). Motivations here are to drive business intelligence which allows services to be refined (e.g. how does my database usage compare to that of my peer group), to develop targeted services (people who like this, also liked that), to improve local services (e.g. add tags or reviews). These are examples where scale matters, where data may need to be concentrated above the individual library level.
And, we are seeing for fee services emerge which address this need. LibraryThing, for example, syndicates its user-generated tagging to libraries. I am not sure that ScholarlyStats provides a service which compares usage across libraries; it would be interesting to know if there were demand for such a thing.
This then touches on larger questions about sourcing decisions (in what combination of local, collaborative, and third party do libraries acquire their service capacities) and about concentration of library presence (in what combination of library or library and third party are services offered).
For example, I discussed Georgia Pines and OhioLink the other day as examples of groups of libraries collaboratively sourcing a concentrated library presence which increases their gravitational pull.
And libraries are beginning to think more seriously about sourcing services with central web presences. Think for example of the decisions made by the National Library of Australia and the Library of Congress when they chose to use Flickr for significant image projects. NLA is seeking to expand the coverage of PictureAustralia; LC is seeking to collect tags from viewers. In each case, the library wants to benefit from the concentration of users and data that Flickr has created on the web. And to suggest another example, Andy Powell has been raising some intriguing questions about how repository services should be sourced in ways that, again, map onto peoples’ experience of the web: would a consolidated network level service be more motivating than a serious of institutional presences? (see here and here). Social networking or other services, he suggests, might flourish at this network level in ways that are not feasible at the institutional level.
When we discuss Web 2.0, there is a temptation to think about blogs and wikis, RSS and a Facebook application, and to stop there. There is also some useful thinking about how to expose web services or data in ways that they can be remixed into other applications. However, Web 2.0 is also about concentration, concentration of data, of users and of communications. We need also to think about how libraries reconfigure services in an environment of network level gravitational hubs, driven by network effects. This will involve greater concentration of library resources in various ways, and also – probably? – greater reliance on other web presences to deliver their services.

9 thoughts on “The two ways of Web 2.0”

  1. I like the distinction you make between aspects of web 2.0 : diffusion and concentration. At times I think there may even be some tension between these aspects i.e. richer user experience and the concentration of data assets. Concentration of assets can lead to lack of interoperability between network services resulting in a poorer user experience.
    Thinking about institutional repositories and their content, there are copyright issues related to content (particularly with regard to published journal articles) that would make concentration of content at the network level problematic. In this case it seems to me that aggregation of appropriate metadata at the network service level is a more realistic short to medium term solution…. that is until the scholarly publishing paradigm flips!
    Other advantages in creating multiple local stores of content
    – enabling a variety of network service providers to add value in different ways over time
    – Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe
    Personally I am not convinced that the majority of academic authors would be more likely to ‘surface content’
    at a network service level. It seems to me that both institutions and authors requirements are better met by institutional repositories – e.g. by providing personal support for surfacing content on web, safe-keeping of content, reporting author’s publication history to funders and other interested parties.
    As I have commented to Andy’s blog, I see no conflict between encouraging more content going into institutional repositories and ambitions to provide more Web 2.0 type services (on top of aggregated metadata referring to IR content).
    Rachel Heery

  2. Rachel – yep, I thought for a few moments before using Andy’s example because of the heated debate surrounding it. My intention here was to use it as an example of how a desire to have a service which matches more of a user’s general experience of the web leads you to think about sourcing something differently.

  3. I really like your “clearification” of the Web2 in the library sector. It is unfortunate that the “diffusion” part is more dominant, but it can be explained, by the cultural and organizational reluctance to increase collaboration – which is seen as “giving up power” and the positive attitude to “diversity”.
    The interesting part is that “concentration” will for sure make the “diffusion” part work bettre and it will eventually deliver much better results.
    I do not hold much hope in the near term in the US for this to happen – there are too many obstacles and push back – and not much leadership.
    The “repositories” example is apt. It is obvious(at least to me” that institutional repositories make for good local politics and makes the locals feel good. But big consortial or state or discipline wide repositories will leverage the size of the database and deliver better services.

  4. It’s funny when you watch a group of professional people talking and giving their opinions, and the tools and jargon they use to do it. This blog, being the fashion of the day around the librarian scene, is such a great way for an institutionalist to diffuse his ideas. The concentration on its threads runs briefly for a few moments, with referrals to other community members’ blogs, and then onto the next.
    It’s not exactly what one could could call communication is it? You would never expect a concentration, or progressively growing “interactive hub” as another profession might say.
    I’m not sure “the diffusion part is dominant”, although it probably appears that way to an institution’s librarian. I’ll just point at another end of the Web where one global community illustrates how new media industry members have been supported for quite a few years now.
    One might say, “They build value by collaboratively sourcing the creation of powerful data assets with their users”. But it just looks like communication between global peers to me; and from it comes the creation of “data assets”, which, for ease and sustainability, are left inside the community’s environment.
    In the other half of the Internet – in the communications area – you won’t see any “data assets” at all. Often the big stuff is increasingly concentrated at an IP address, in transit between, or in a cluster (cloud) outside, institutions.
    Talking about repositories is probably how librarians once spoke about their scrolls. Looking at the drop in the British Library’s document demand (3.8 to 1.6m items/year since 2001) is a good measure of watching one era of media format come to an end. (I’m talking emphasis, not either/or)
    We are watching new institutions being born. Perhaps if the classifiers of institutional repositories aggregated their communications & did a little outreach, they might understand a little better what form of concentrations have become relevant to their ex users, or more likely, what they call them. E.g LOCKSS = (managed) P2P.
    PS. Paradigms don’t “flip”. The word comes from the same root as parallel. Not sure how this group might compare them. We might say ‘National Institutions’ vs. ‘Global Groups’, like the ones talking here and diffused over its related blogrolls.

  5. So the Net and the Web may both be shaped as something mathematicians call a Graph, but they are at different levels. The Net links computers, the Web links documents.
    Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, “It’s not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important”. Obvious, really.

  6. Isn’t it more important to distinguish between sets of facts which are objectively true, independent of the opinions of social networkers; sets of facts which might be socially manipulated and could be made to becomes true, and thereby make a difference which makes a difference; and sets of data which really don’t matter at all?
    We could call these fundamentalisms 1-3, then work out how grid maps onto web and net? Or science onto arts and humanities?
    The security tag is coming flow, which seems remarkably prescient?

  7. Thanks for this post. Your ideas often spark a ‘got it’ moment for me and help me clarify my own thoughts about library 2.0. I think the ideas on diffusion and concentration relate directly to those of discovery and disclosure that you have written about before. It seems to me that diffusion and concentration are ways to achieve disclosure so that discovery may happen. I’m giving a talk on the future of reference services in libraries soon and I would like to quote these ideas. Is that OK? Of course, I will provide credit and links to the relevant blog posts.

  8. I am curious that the Library of Congress has decided to use Flickr for an image project, mainly because of the shortcomings of Flickr’s search facility.
    [Unless I am doing something really stupid] it appears that Flickr searches stems of words, even if you only want the whole word. For instance, I did a search on ‘logging’ on The Commons. Flickr managed to produce several images with little connection to the logging industry. Most of these had the tag: ‘logs’. One was about a colliery strike in Wales during World War 1 – no connection with logging, apart from the fact that there are some logs in the photo.
    The shortcomings on the main Flickr site are generally down to poor user tagging, but this is obviously not the case with this LOC project, as the tagging is extensive.
    I suppose my point is that many of these Web 2.0 applications/websites are not nearly as sophisticated as they think they are. They certainly have a lot of ground to make up before they can be used as serious research tools.

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