Words as Pointers, and the Meaning of Web 2.0

I had a great exchange with Steven White the other day in the comments on my entry Why Web 2.0 is More Than a Buzzword.

Steve took great exception to the term, but after we had a spirited debate in the comments, he wrote a thoughtful blog entry about our difference of opinion, Is Tim Just Mizundastood?. He still hates the term “Web 2.0,” because he thinks the Web is badly broken, and needs to be replaced by more robust technologies. But Steve now understands that what I’m really talking about isn’t the web at all, or not just the web, but the movement of technology towards the global internet as platform, and all that means. In particular, he now understands that:

“Having had my cringing reaction to the name acknowledged, I was free to move on….The most important aspect that I noted was that Tim had attached a consistent set of meanings to a new term. It was previously “the internet operating system” and “infoware”, but the motifs were consistent throughout a stream of articles over the years. That explained the shifting meanings of Web 2.0, as a message was being played on the strings of whatever instrument was closest to hand.


That meaning is augumenting human intelligence and forming collective insights by computer aided collaboration…

When the web browser is replaced by something new that maintains and enhances the advantages that the web browser first highlighted, then Tim will have the same ideas with a different name. The consistency is in the message, not in the meaning of the term “Web 2.0”. Playing “Danny Boy” on a piano is the same song when played on a guitar… but words are supposed to have a consistent meaning.

As a phrase, “Web 2.0” breaks encapsulation by associating implementation with naming. Any programmer knows that you should keep your APIs technology neutral so you can switch modules without rewriting. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people streneously objecting to the “Web 2.0” naming are programmers….

So look past the name, which is the ugly schnozzle on the face of a beautiful set of ideas. The name will change as the technology moves on….

As this happens, Tim will be accused (as has already happened) of shifting the goalposts because his verbiage is altering over time. Different words and different emphasis look like he’s shifting his grounds like a politician reneging on his election promises, but what he’s saying hasn’t changed for the last 10 years. I don’t think it’ll change for the next 10.”

Steve nailed something very important. As I mentioned to him in email, one of my favorite quotes is from an ancient Greek orator (whose name I’ve forgotten) who said, “The difference between a man and a sheep is that a sheep just bleats, but a man keeps saying the same thing in different ways until he gets what he wants.” And he’s right. I’ve been calling the same thing by different names over the years: infoware, the internet operating system, the open source paradigm shift, and now Web 2.0. The name changes partly because the ideas have come more into focus, and partly opportunistically, as all language evolves. I’m trying to point to an idea, and some words seem to work better than others. “Web 2.0,” for all its shortcomings as a term, has caught on.

But I have to say that I don’t entirely agree with Steve’s point that “words are supposed to have a consistent meaning.” Words pass meaning by reference, not by value. They are pointers, and any student of language knows how much their value changes over time.

A great example from literature: in Jane Austen’s time (early 1800s), the word “condescension” had a very positive meaning. It referred to the “gracious” act of a higher status individual being kind to one of lower status. Now that we’ve moved away from an acceptance of the English nobility as some kind of higher caste, the word has a negative meaning: looking down on someone as an inferior. The word is the same, but it now points to the opposite meaning.

But still, I take his point about proper encapsulation, and that the association of “Web 2.0” with the web is unfortunate (because the phenomenon is not restricted to http-based technologies). But even here, despite lots of other people asserting that Web 2.0 has something to do with Ajax, or mashups, or various specific technologies, I’ve tried from the beginning to give it a broad but consistent meaning. My first attempt, the paper What is Web 2.0? spent ten or fifteen pages walking around the subject, but I’ve now got it down to a short definition: “Web 2.0 is the move to the internet as platform, and an understanding of the rules for success on that new platform. First among those rules is building applications that harness network effects to get better the more that people use them.”

I loved the debate with Steve. I think we both came away with new ideas and changed minds as a result of our exchange. It was a great example of blogging as conversation starter. It’s worth reading Steve’s entire entry (linked above) because of the way he explains how the “cluetrain” works. He wasn’t expecting to hear directly from me, and surprised to have a rant turn into a conversation.