The emergence of Web 2.0

This is an edited extract from a piece I wrote for the book Digital Culture edited by Glen Creeber & Royston Martin, published December 2008.

When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1990, he thought of it as a place where people could collaborate to share and build knowledge. He intended that every web browser would be able to edit pages, not just read them.

When I read about this idea in his book Weaving the Web, in 1999, it seemed nice, but rather na´ve, and I had no idea how it could possibly work. Those of us who made our own webpages back in those days spent a lot of time and effort perfecting them in terms of both design and content. So why on earth would we want other people to come along and muck up our work? It seemed like a bizarre prospect.

This was the dominant attitude for almost a decade, and was matched by the fact that nobody had really worked out how web browsers could be used to edit other people's webpages.

More recently, however, there has been considerable excitement about 'Web 2.0' – not actually a sequel to the Web that we know and love, but rather a way of using existing systems in a 'new' way: to bring people together creatively.

Tim O'Reilly, who coined the phrase 'Web 2.0' in 2004, has described it as 'harnessing collective intelligence'. The principle has also been summarised by Eric Schmidt, Google's Chief Executive Officer, as 'Don't fight the internet' – which may sound strange at first: after all, who wants to fight the internet? But the point is spot-on: what he means is 'Don't resist the network', which is what we were doing when we didn't want other people messing up our websites.

In other words, individuals should open themselves to collaborative projects instead of seeking to make and protect their 'own' material. Sometimes, of course, you might want to make your own perfectly-crafted, personal thing, and that's fine too, but 'Web 2.0' reminds us that the possibility of collaboration with the millions of other people out there can be great.

To understand Web 2.0 better, you can read our case study of Wikipedia, which is a 'classic' instance of Web 2.0 in action.

By David Gauntlett
September 2008