Levels of the Game: The Hierarchy of Web 2.0 Applications

Reading Jim Fallows’ new Technology Review article about his experiment in using only Web 2.0 applications for two weeks, I think: “What an odd thing to do! It’s a bit like evaluating the utility of an automobile by foregoing your bedroom and sleeping in the back seat of your car for two weeks.” Fallows is insightful, and he makes some good points (more on that later), but he also reveals just how hard it is for people to wrap their heads around Web 2.0. He says “Web 2.0’s most important step forward seems to be the widespread adoption of Ajax.” Alas, that is a common misconception.

Just because something uses Ajax and is presented on the web doesn’t make it a Web 2.0 application. (Fallows does cite my What is Web 2.0? article in evaluating the first app he mentions, Dodgeball, but he doesn’t apply much rigor to the other apps that he talks about. For example, he takes writely as one of his test cases, and then judges the merits of Web 2.0 by how using an online application like writely stacks up to a local application like Word. Writely is interesting, but it’s hardly a canonical Web 2.0 application.)

The confusion leads me to think about a hierarchy of “Web 2.0-ness”:

Level 3: The application could ONLY exist on the net, and draws its essential power from the network and the connections it makes possible between people or applications. These are applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. EBay, craigslist, Wikipedia, del.icio.us, Skype, (and yes, Dodgeball) meet this test. They are fundamentally driven by shared online activity. The web itself has this character, which Google and other search engines have then leveraged. (You can search on the desktop, but without link activity, many of the techniques that make web search work so well are not available to you.) Web crawling is one of the fundamental Web 2.0 activities, and search applications like Adsense for Content also clearly have Web 2.0 at their heart. I had a conversation with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, the other day, and he summed up his philosophy and strategy as “Don’t fight the internet.” In the hierarchy of web 2.0 applications, the highest level is to embrace the network, to understand what creates network effects, and then to harness them in everything you do.

Level 2: The application could exist offline, but it is uniquely advantaged by being online. Flickr is a great example. You can have a local photo management application (like iPhoto) but the application gains remarkable power by leveraging an online community. In fact, the shared photo database, the online community, and the artifacts it creates (like the tag database) is central to what distinguishes Flickr from its offline counterparts. And its fuller embrace of the internet (for example, that the default state of uploaded photos is “public”) is what distinguishes it from its online predecessors.

Level 1: The application can and does exist successfully offline, but it gains additional features by being online. Writely is a great example. If you want to do collaborative editing, its online component is terrific, but if you want to write alone, as Fallows did, it gives you little benefit (other than availability from computers other than your own.)

Level 0: The application has primarily taken hold online, but it would work just as well offline if you had all the data in a local cache. MapQuest, Yahoo! Local, and Google Maps are all in this category (but mashups like housingmaps.com are at Level 3.) To the extent that online mapping applications harness user contributions, they jump to Level 2.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention either Amazon in the hierarchy above. That’s because I can’t decide whether they belong on level 2 or 3. One can imagine an Amazon-style product catalog offline (for example, in a store), but Amazon is so persistent in harnessing online participation that they have almost managed to transcend the limits of their category. They’ve also built services, from Associates to S3, that make them completely a network citizen. So call them level 3, and a testament to the power of strategic effort to change the game.

iTunes is another great example of an application that spans levels. Its initial market and positioning was as a desktop application with additional online features (Level 1), but as the iTunes music store becomes more and more central to its value and competitive position, iTunes moves to Level 2. To the extent that it eventually incorporates features like those in last.fm, it would eventually become an application that is so woven into the fabric of the net that it would be crippled if taken offline (i.e. Level 3). (Even now, put in a new CD when offline, and you’ll find yourself moaning because the track names are missing.) Overall, I believe that there is a strong pressure for all these applications to move up the hierarchy the longer people use them and the more the network features become central to their operation.

Meanwhile, there is of course another whole class (the world always resists neat categorization!): that is a desktop application such as an email or IM client that nonetheless finds all its utility on the net. For that matter, consider the humble telephone.

As to the strong points of Fallows’ piece, I loved his opening conceit: “Sooner or later, we all face the Dodgeball truth. This comes at the moment when you realize that one of life’s possibilities — a product, an adventure, an offer, an idea — is really meant for people younger than you.” This insight echoes one of my favorite lines from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, “History is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do.” (Chew on that one for a while! Lovely, succinct, and insightful. If it doesn’t make sense to you, wait a few years.)

I also liked this bit: “The new Web is analog, not digital. By which I mean it is not the result of a single, big, discrete innovation. Rather, it represents a continuum of new ideas, from the slightly evolutionary to the dramatically different.” A lot of people struggle with the fact that Web 2.0 is not so easily defined. Fallows accepts that idea gracefully.

He also noted an intriguing consequence of the long tail, namely that apps that don’t want to be all things to all people can do less. “But those aspiring to use Ajax to displace desktop applications and services often employ an intriguingly “short tail” approach…. The result of this short-tailism might be a curious new “long-tail” division between online and desktop applications: the free online apps will be for ordinary users under routine circumstances, while for-pay desktop apps may become even more bloated and specialized for high-end users. And to return to the original Dodgeball principle, there will be applications suited to users in each stage of life.”

I also found this to be a very insightful comment: “The new Web is digital, not analog. (See point number one; discuss.) By this I mean that the collective intelligence Web 2.0 supposedly marshals is most impressive when it sends big, distinct, yes-or-no signals, and worst when it attempts to offer more nuanced judgments.” He contrasts the thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgements of eBay (this seller is OK) with what he considers Pandora‘s failed attempt at more nuanced feedback in selecting music he might like. But he shows his own lack of nuance here. Pandora is not a Web 2.0 application! It uses algorithmic means to identify music you might like, and would work just as well offline. If he wants a Web 2.0 approach to the same problem, he should have tried last.fm.

What I found most insightful in Fallows’ piece was the idea that Web 2.0 is ultimately based on trust. That’s a nice grace note when we think about architectures of participation. They do ultimately rely on trust.

He concludes that such trust is fragile, and (to quote the Tech Review PR person who sent me the link to this story), “if broken, will leave the entire generation of new web-ers susceptible to that feeling of being too “old” for a new trend.” Despite spam, phishing, flame wars, and reversion storms on Wikipedia, I disagree.

Trust is always broken. But I return again and again to the wisdom of Wallace Stevens, who sees the realist, illusions shattered, nonethless returning to optimism, with “the yes of the realist spoken because he must say yes, because beneath every no lay a yes that had never been broken.” The human spirit is a wonderful thing, and the fact that we can build applications that let us cooperate in new ways gives outlet to that spirit.