Jul 17

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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,, 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 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, 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

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.

tags: web 2.0  | comments: 25   | Sphere It

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Comments: 25

  Robert Treat [07.17.06 08:37 AM]

Calling Amazon a level 3 seems right to me; you can compare and contrast them with other online book sellers (bn, booksamillion, powells) who are progressivly less web 2.0 and slide farther on down the scale. Not only does Amazon capture user comments, but they also allow authors to do blogs right on thier book pages... that level of interaction seems pretty Web 2.0, and not something I've seen from other book sellers.

  Kevin Farnham [07.17.06 10:03 AM]

I see a somewhat parallel set of levels in the history of publishing:

The Level 0 age was pre-Gutenberg, where all information was produced by, published by (through hand-copying), and consumed by an intellectual elite.

The Level 1 age was post-Gutenberg, where the information was still produced by an intelligensia, but it was published by geeks (printers), and over time became widely consumed by an ever-broadening populace. Because of this broader distribution of ideas, the society as a whole benefitted.

The Level 2 age was the Web 1.0 world, where suddenly geeks could create and publish their own content and, if they chose to do so, publish the content of other members of the general populace. The content could be chit-chat/commentary about the content produced by the intellectuals. Publishing became something available to "common people".

The Level 3 age is the Web 2.0 world, where you don't even have to be a geek to publish. Everyone with society's basic skill set can publish and indeed is invited to publish by MySpace, Flickr, Wikipedia... Amazon encourages both readers and authors to publish commentary about books sold on the site...

In both cases, the levels are informed by ever greater breadth of consumption and publication of materials, with everyone doing both in the Level 3 world.

The problem in this world, of course, is that indeed everything IS published and what's published into the digital domain is imperishable. Which means that idle chit-chat that once was dissipated into the summer breeze is now carved into digital stone, as it were, becoming part of the permanent public record that exists for all participants in the Level 3 world.

  Justin [07.17.06 12:40 PM]

This is really well put together, thanks.

  Tim O'Reilly [07.17.06 12:45 PM]

Kevin -- I agree that there are some parallels regarding ease of publishing. But I think that they are overstated. It wasn't substantially easier for me to get started publishing on the web than it was to get started publishing in print. In some ways it was harder. And ask any PTA that mimeographed its newsletter in the fifties if it was really any harder to get the news out then than it is now. If anything, the basic equipment to "publish," while more widespread, is considerably more expensive. Even in the early days of the printing press, printing presses became as common (relative to population) as ISPs are today. There were local presses in every major town, both newspapers and commercial printers.

To me, the real publishing hierarchy is more like this:

Level 0: Information is strictly controlled. You have to get the imprimatur of the Catholic Church to get your views heard. Even the ability to read is strictly controlled, to make sure that people don't get above their station.

Level 1: Literacy becomes widespread, along with the tools of publishing.

Level 2: We develop means for easy copying (xeroxing, leading to electronic cut and paste) so that re-use of published material becomes easier.

Level 3: Published material is actually designed for collaboration, re-use and remixing. Collective works become the norm rather than the exception.

  bryan [07.17.06 01:01 PM]

On the subject of Ajax I've been seeing a lot of ajax usage toolkits etc. that are really bad in web terms, given that all data is held in the javascript

  Tim O'Reilly [07.17.06 01:33 PM]

Xzilla -- I use Amazon in my talks all the time for this reason. They are one of the most interesting Web 2.0 companies. They have taken an application that isn't naturally a network effects application and turned it into one by dint of persistent effort, in Jeff Bezos' words (to me, in a different context), weaving a rope of advantage out of many small threads. It's really admirable, and should be an inspiration to companies that don't see a clear path for a single Gordian knot-style immediate solution to how to transform their company or application.

  Tom Hynes [07.17.06 08:57 PM]

Great article and insightful comments. I'd agree with the levels in the parent article. I especially liked the publishing analogy as the comparison to the printing press accurately captures the importance of the internet on modern society.

My actual comment is sort of off topic but I would like to discuss how the sheer number of WEB 2.0 sites out there, with more coming everyday, may actually be "watering down" the collaborative aspects at the very heart of WEB 2.0.

Don't get me wrong. I think WEB 2.0 is great and I expect great things from it. However, with the abundance of similar WEB 2.0 sites out there, how thriving a community can any one site hope to develop? Will not a larger community help drive the quantity of collaboration and, quite possibly, the quality? Sure there are examples of sites that have robust communities (Flickr, MySpace, etc.) but there are many more "cottage" sites out there that are starved for attention.

If you look at the internet from a 10,000 foot level there is a lot of collaboration happening today thanks to WEB 2.0 that wasn't happening just a few years back. However, if you zoom in to the 100 foot level you will see that for the most part this "collaboration" is diluted through many different sites. I think you would be hard pressed to find many sites that could be defined as true communities as opposed to cliques.

I am reminded of that old joke that goes something like, "If you put a million monkeys in a room, give them a million typewriters to bang on, eventually together they will produce a great novel." This won't happen if you spread those million monkeys out over 100,000 rooms or sites.

Not calling anyone a monkey by any means. The comments posted to this article are evidence that there are many sharp minds out there doing there thing. I am simply saying that people ought to give some thought to how better aggregate all this collaborative effort that is happening. The larger the collaborative community the more everyone in said community will benefit.

I don't think simply saying that the cream will rise to the top solves the above. Sometimes cream does rise but with the abundance of WEB 2.0 sites out there I believe it is very easy for the cream to curdle.

Anyway. My two cents. Again, good post. Cheers!

  Ian Delaney [07.18.06 03:07 AM]

I'm in two minds how useful some of this categorisation may be. is more Web 2.0 than Pandora, because it utilises network effects rather than a team of editors to decide on the best recommendations to make to you? All very well, but in terms of the user experience they are really very similar. The effectiveness of their recommendation systems are very much a matter of how broad your tastes are. Pandora ought to come up with a narrower range, because of the way it works, but that may be a good or bad thing to a particular user. If you're looking for music recommendations, you really don't care what's happening in the back room.

Also, you say tier 0 applications like Pandora could exist offline. That would only be true if their team had stopped work and finished categorising all the available music. And that is a long way from being the case, I believe. The same would be true of Google Maps if they had stopped updating their maps and imagery, but that isn't true either, is it? Indeed the ever-evolving nature of these applications make them very different from the desktop experience, and continually more powerful, much like your tier 3 applications.

So two points there, really:
(a) if user experience can find no real distinction between similar level 0 and level 3 applications, is this distinction useful?
(b) level 0 applications are gaining distinct benefits from being online.

I'd prefer to think of a descriptive spectrum rather than a hierarchy. The extent to which network effects matter is one axis.

  Tim O'Reilly [07.18.06 08:14 PM]

Ian - A spectrum rather a hierarchy, yes. Reality always eludes hard categorization.

However, I think either you or I misunderstand Pandora. I believe that they categorize music algorithmically, which is why I said I didn't think of it as a Web 2.0 app, whereas, which uses collective intelligence, definitely is. And I at least find very different results from the two systems. To be sure, as you suggest, given that the music world is always updated, thinking of even pandora as a non-internet app is really only a thought experiment, since it is the internet that makes it possible to gather all the music. (If it weren't as easy to rip mp3s, and if we hadn't had p2p to kickstart the online music market, online music would still be in about the same state as online books are today.) But I think my point stands, that pandora wasn't the most nuanced choice from the point of view of evaluating Web 2.0.

  David Mantripp [07.19.06 04:19 AM]

So where does something like SETI@home fit into this then ? It isn't a web app, but it couldn't exist without the web. Is this in any sense a Web 2.0 app ? It fosters a community, and it is all about participation. Is it some kind of antecedent to Web 2.0 ? Or something completely differennt ?

Does a Web 2.0 app need to be a business, or aspire to be a business, to qualify ? In the above discussion, there seems to be a shift from discussion applications to discussing businesses. Are they one and the same thing in Web 2.0 ?

  Tim O'Reilly [07.19.06 08:33 AM]

David -- I should have made this clear -- in many ways "Web" 2.0 is an unfortunate name. There are many "Web 2.0" applications, in my opinion, that have nothing to do with the web per se, or the http protocol. Seti@home is one of them. (I still remember the surprise of the P2P crowd, who thought the conference was all about file sharing, when we brought up David Anderson of seti@home for a keynote.)

I used to call this whole phenomenon "the internet operating system," but then Dale Dougherty came up with the catchy name "Web 2.0" for a new conference. The name stuck, but the phenomenon I was always interested in was far broader than the web.

So, yes, distributed computation, P2P apps, whether for file sharing or for other types of application (like Skype) are part of Web 2.0, often at level 3, even though they have nothing to do with the Web.

If you apply the tests that I listed above, you see that they all fit. Nowhere do I say that apps need to use a particular technology. There are also cell network apps that apply web 2.0 principles, and as we get into RFID space, the same principles will apply there.

What we're really talking about is understanding the dynamics of the network economy.

  rijesh [07.19.06 12:11 PM]

hello sir plz gibve me more informations

  Adam Messinger [07.19.06 01:25 PM]

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 are at Level 3.) To the extent that online mapping applications harness user contributions, they jump to Level 2.

I submit that the map examples would actually be much enhanced by having an offline cache. Maps sites are their most useful to me when traveling, unfortunately this is also when I'm most likely to have poor or no connectivity.

  keith p scharding [08.11.06 09:52 AM]

Your analysis of the development of the web 2.0 technology is correct; AJAX is not a technology but a paradigm application [framework] utilizing javascript - what makes AJAX work so well is the rest of the interop developments which support it. In Actuality; Web 2.0 is an application of the Semantic Web - streamlined for the average internet user [unethical or not] and includes all the tricks and gimmics which make the net a proverbial spider's web. Technologies such as P2P could greatly facilitate prevention of unethical exloitation of these technologies; such as Ebay - which adjudges your trustworthiness in direct relationship with providing them direct access to your bank account.

You made this "astute comment":

"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.""

Beware of viewing this powerful technology as a "harbringer" of artificial intelligence - or being "shackled" to model-view theories of application programming. Axiomatic Semantics provide the programmer with the meta-languages for application development. Meta-modeling for Concept Role Semantics is making interoperable correspondence with the meta-language itself {Entity Relationship Model - ERD} a functional reality []. The light itself is the "participatory architecture"; we are only just learning how to use this "ubiquitous" energy source. Look at projects such as the Atlantic Zoo and it's Eclipse technology; convergence within traditional programming is a reality now and will tremendously increase; information behavior is the new paradigm. Be on guard - Big Brother is watching you.

History moves slowly - that is why the phonies can manipulate it. Our earth's magnetic moment is so powerful that it actually "warps time and space" [which is it "drags" through the cosmos with it - Goddard Space Agency reasearch finding}. Mars recently passed within 36 million miles of the Earth - yet all our brave leaders could do was bounce a child's toy onto it - while all of the other expeditions failed. Don't accept "cheap imitations" - just like our woe begone space program - the semantic web must be developed to it's fullest potential - web 2.0 is part of this development.

But keep looking up - for your redemption draws neigh.

  Ivan [08.14.06 03:07 PM]

The distinction between levels 2 and 3 is too muddy. I'm sure proponents of Flick would argue that they are at the heart of "networkiness" and that nothing like it could exist offline.

You're viewing Flickr as a database when in reality it is a sharing community, much like Wikipedia.

  Tim O'Reilly [08.14.06 08:49 PM]

Ivan, I hear you, but while Flickr takes unique advantage of being online, it does in fact compete with standalone PC photo applications in a way that, say, eBay does not.

  Brad Mazurek [08.29.06 12:32 AM]

Responding to a comment Tom Hynes made earlier about there seeming to be collaboration at a high level, but at the low level collaboration isn't happening because the collaboration is too diluted.

I would argue that we're seeing the effects of the long tail here. The long tails that are being exposed and enabled by the various sites are a potential boon, but they are a double edged sword: anyone can ideally find content that they are particularly passionate about (ie, find a community of like-minded people), but any given community will not be as large.

I think Tom is right that many of these Web 2.0 applications are silos of data, but I think the trends toward market consolidation and mash-ups (cooperation versus control) bode well for the long term trends.

Tim, from what you've seen, how will the Web 2.0 characteristic of "Network Effects by Default" fare in the long run? Will enabling niche communities (and presumably more passionate participants) increase the percentage of active contributors significantly?

Using myspace as an example, I think we are seeing the start of a culture that is integrating online in a way that is far more personally intrusive than our generation might naturally accept. People are exposing themselves (no pun intended) in ways that we simply would not. I hope that exposure will result in an increase in the number of participants in these niche communities, thereby amplifying the network effects we've seen thus far.

  Ilya Berelson [09.28.06 04:38 AM]

I dont think the general public really cares about how much they expose themselves if in return they gain the stimulation of content and communication with their peers. Those two factors simply hold more weight then privacy.

  Vineet Kumar [10.24.06 02:29 PM]

I disagree about iTunes. As far as I can tell, it's not even on the web at all. As long as it's accessible only through desktop apps available only for download as EULA-wrapped binaries from a single company, it's still just an "online-enabled" desktop application. Yes I'm a GNU/Linux user, and yes you can argue that this makes me irrelevant, but platform independence is an important part of "web 2.0" IMO.

Your example of putting in a CD and only getting the track names if you're online exemplifies Level 0: if you had the data in a local cache, it would work exactly the same (or better).

  Greg Carnegie [11.03.06 03:14 AM]

Wow this is great article and a lot of great comments. I was recently searching for such info and i didn't thought i would find it in archive because it is quite new to me :)

Anyway thanks for interesting informations Tim.

  techwriter [11.13.06 05:52 AM]

which level would 'Writely' or 'Google Docs and Spreadsheets' feature now?

  Dr. Jai Ganesh [12.27.06 09:29 PM]

The alternative way of categorisation is based on the types of differentiation adopted by Web 2.0 based business models. The following could be the types of differentiation. Of course the dimensions of differentiation are not mutually exclusive.

1. Differentiated User Interfaces
* E.g. Netvibes
2. Differentiated peer-to-peer interactions and collaboration mechanisms
* E.g. Blogger, Google Docs and Spreadsheets
3. Differentiated Network participation
* E.g.
4. Differentiated collective intelligence creation
* E.g. Flickr, Digg, Craigslist
5. Differentiated aggregation mechanisms
* E.g. Housingmaps

These dimensions of differentiation are essentially data/information based, technology based or network/scale based.

  grace [05.23.07 05:53 AM]

Which level would you place skype and wordpress (online diary) ?

  Gita [07.29.08 09:54 PM]


I need to understand what differs
1) level 2 and level 1
2) level 0 and web 1.0

Please help me understand with examples like Flickr(level 2), iTunes(level 1), MapQuest(level 0) and any example for web 1.0.

Thanks and Regards,


  Sebastian Altenhoff [09.22.08 04:26 AM]

Hi Tim,

I'm working on a thesis on how to use YouTube in the foreign language classroom and have used your hierarchy to explain what YouTube actually is and how to integrate its functions effectively into a language learning environment. Just to make sure: where would you see YouTube? I've slotted it into level 3.

Thanks a lot and kind regards,


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