Oct 3

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Web 2.0 as Rainforest

Steven Johnson wrote in email: "Thought you guys would enjoy my little riff on what web 2.0 means, in my latest Discover column." He's right. This is an awesome analogy. Love the bits that Steven especially pointed to at the end of the column:

"The difference between this Web 2.0 model and the previous one is directly equivalent to the difference between a rain forest and a desert. One of the primary reasons we value tropical rain forests is because they waste so little of the energy supplied by the sun while running massive nutrient cycles. Most of the solar energy that saturates desert environments gets lost, assimilated by the few plants that can survive in such a hostile climate. Those plants pass on enough energy to sustain a limited number of insects, which in turn supply food for the occasional reptile or bird, all of which ultimately feed the bacteria. But most of the energy is lost.

A rain forest, on the other hand, is such an efficient system for using energy because there are so many organisms exploiting every tiny niche of the nutrient cycle. We value the diversity of the ecosystem not just as a quaint case of biological multiculturalism but because the system itself does a brilliant job of capturing the energy that flows through it. Efficiency is one of the reasons that clearing rain forests is shortsighted: The nutrient cycles in rain forest ecosystems are so tight that the soil is usually very poor for farming. All the available energy has been captured on the way down to the earth.

Think of information as the energy of the Web's ecosystem. Those Web 1.0 pages with their crude hyperlinks are like the sun's rays falling on a desert. A few stragglers are lucky enough to stumble across them, and thus some of that information might get reused if one then decides to e-mail the URL to a friend or to quote from it on another page. But most of the information goes to waste. In the Web 2.0 model, we have thousands of services scrutinizing each new piece of information online, grabbing interesting bits, remixing them in new ways, and passing them along to other services. Each new addition to the mix can be exploited in countless new ways, both by human bloggers and by the software programs that track changes in the overall state of the Web. Information in this new model is analyzed, repackaged, digested, and passed on down to the next link in the chain. It flows."

tags: web 2.0  | comments: 6   | Sphere It

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Comments: 6

  Roger Lancefield [10.04.05 05:11 AM]

It's a good analogy in terms of efficiency, but one of the key reasons people marvel at rainforests is that they are paragons of *sustainability*. When the computers and networking devices that underpin Web 2.0 are retailed in organic packaging, contain no noxious or non-sustainable materials and are (for example) solar-powered, then it'll be one hell of an analogy!

  Pete Cashmore [10.06.05 04:02 PM]

One of the most colorful analogies so far. Seems like their site is down right now, though.

  reed [10.07.05 11:48 AM]

One of the commenters on Steve's post also mentions sustainability, but extends the forest metaphor to temperate forests. How do we make the Web sustainable? I think sustainability can come from interoperability standards, better "transclusion", and most importantly, trying to avoid dead links.

  Markus [10.07.05 10:20 PM]

People say that web 2.0 is all about empowering the user and allowing them to freely express themselves. I think this is all fine and dandy but it will pale in comparison to what is coming.

In the last couple of years the prices for developing a site, cost of hardware have fallen like a rock, in the same time the performance and reliability has dramatically risen. This leads me to believe that what is today called Web 2.0 is just the leading edge of a much greater technological revolution. The second half of the Web 2.0 revolution is going to be all about empowering the individual and allowing them to express themselves and own the medium in which it is done. More importantly I believe that as a side effect of all of this, individuals will be running some of the worlds top 100 websites by themselves.

About 2 years ago i started a site called, it was a totally free online dating site. Today i still run this site all by myself, it averages about 6.5 million pageviews a day from users. This puts me in the top 100 websites in North America ranked by pageviews.

1. 9 Months ago Lavalife had a monopoly on the online dating market in canada, they have had one for 10 years, as of today my site is slightly ahead in market share making me # 1.

2. In the US market according to I have moved from the 50th largest dating site last time this year to number 7 as of today ranked by visitors.

3. Plentyoffish has grown 10 fold in 10 months. Other dating sites are spending 5 million a month in marketing and barely retaining the marketshare they already have. and have over 300 employees. I am larger then both sites, offer more features then they do, and yet my company consists of only one employee that being me.

I've been told the industry is very scared of me, because i've proven that a individual can brush aside a company that spends 5 million bucks a month in marketing and has a virtual monopoly. More importantly i've proven that a free model/ Web 2.0 model can be highly profitable if the company is run by an individual but would never work if it was run by a big company. I believe going forward huge paid job sites like, paid classified sites etc will collapse as individuals or tiny groups of people running free sites take market share.

  Cully Perlman [11.01.05 06:23 PM]

Good for you! I am also a one-man show, and while not nearly as savvy as you in terms of SEO, i'm learning daily. My site, (also a free site) was recently mentioned in the Seattle Times, and membership has been slowly picking up. Within the next week will be offering a good amount more of free dating articles and resources for its users. I've seen plenty of criticism about, but don't let it bother you--although i'm sure it doesn't.

Cully Perlman

  Martie [04.14.06 10:21 AM]

This is by far the best analogy I have found in comparing the Web 1.0 and the Web 2.0! This will help people understand the importance of what is happening.

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