An open letter to Andrew Orlowski

In reponse to this article in The Register, I sent the following to Andrew this morning:


In response to your question, “how good and bad do you think it will get?”, I think the answer is: “pretty good” – even if I unconditionally agree with your assertion that Web 2.0 is just another dotcom bubble.

The original bubble was actually very useful. Through it, the Internet came to prominence in the eyes of the public; before it, the Radio Times was straight-facedly describing the web as “the new name for CB radio”, while afterwards mainstream media were carrying stories about it as if it was just another branch of media and entertainment. Sure, most of the businesses involved were selling snake oil at best, but in the long run they paved the way for a number of businesses offering genuine services that are genuinely changing the world. Google was a business of the bubble era, and I for one welcome our lava lamp loving overlords (although I do wish they’d shut up about their chef). They’ve drastically improved search, and through efforts like Google Talk are actively promoting standards-based technologies, getting our previously impenetrable friends in Redmond worried in the process.

Flickr has made a splash because of its user interface. Using a simple design and some DHTML and AJAX, it feels dynamic while having a low overhead; furthermore, it has an open API that allows developers to create whichever applications they want. This was a neat strategy from their point of view: because Flickr is just a photo sharing site nobody’s going to be changing the world with their derived pages, but the people who tinker around with this kind of thing are the people who have well-read blogs. It was instant publicity, and I can see why Yahoo bought them: not because of the engineering expertise or the service itself, but because they created a marketing buzz within the blogging elite like no-one else has.

We’re now on the cusp of something useful coming out of all of this., with its irritating name and sparse user interface, isn’t amazing on its own. But the principle has applications within academia, for instance: imagine if all the students on a course could mark up resources and share them with their fellow students. Or in a corporate setting, people can share web links or files with each other in a similarly freeform-but-categorised kind of way. Nobody’s going to use for that – but they may well use software that’s been *inspired* by; something meatier with those kinds of functions as part of the mix. Tagging isn’t a new idea, but it’s taken these websites to illustrate how it can be used to a mass audience. Likewise, open APIs aren’t a particularly new idea, but now they’ve captured the imagination of a generation of web programmers, we’re going to see applications interoperating with each other in new and unexpected ways.

As I see it, the problem is (de)centralisation, which you hinted at in your article: if a thousand sites depend on Flickr, what happens if Flickr goes down? Wouldn’t it make a great deal more sense to think about standards for data transfer and availability to allow for Flickr-like data all over the Internet, rather than in one place – effectively a peer-to-peer network (or networks) of tagged resources? That way one can still grab information and manipulate it, but with zero dependence and a high tolerance for network failure. Rather than there being one nebulous Microsoft Office 12 For Web, there could be ten thousand office applications that all use the same standards and allow for data transfer perhaps with storage services elsewhere. The answer to “how bad do you think it will get” is “exactly the same as now” if we allow one service provider to create a monopoly for a particular type of service. As ever, the solution is open standards with a framework that anyone can use. This is obviously not going to lead to billions of dollars for any one provider, so it’s probably up to the open source movement to create.

I have to declare an interest: I’m the developer / technical developer of Elgg (, which is web-based software for universities that incorporates elements from web 2.0. So far we’ve received a good response from our outlook on these kinds of services, and we’re working hard to create and work with decentralised networks for the resources that we manage. Quite how or where it’s going to go from here, I’m not exactly sure: however, I’m sure that this kind of functionality has a place in cooperation with more traditional application processes and categorisation schemas. It won’t be long before the bubble bursts again and the Flickrs and del.icio.uses of this world begin to fade, but we will be feeling their benefits for some time to come.

Yours sincerely,

Ben Werdmuller

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