On Web tools

For a while now I’ve been intercutting this weblog with various discoveries and thoughts regarding new web technologies, be they server or browser based. 2005 was quite exciting for that sort of thing – I’m still in love with Writely, for example, and although they’d been around for a while I started to use del.icio.us and Flickr in earnest. The trouble is, lately, when I’ve scoured the blogosphere (I think that term was originally a joke, but it seems to have stuck) I haven’t been able to find anything really new or interesting to report.

Take tagging. I think tags, when implemented correctly, are a really efficient way to organise information; there’s never information that can’t be categorised, and there are never unused parts of the taxonomy. So, correspondingly, everyone from Amazon to the next tiny little startup has incorporated them, and that’s great; but often, they’re there for no reason. New web services are described as, “a phone book … with tags!!!”, or “classified advertising … with tags!!!”, or “home shopping … with tags!!!” as if the simple act of adding a bottom-up taxonomy reinvents what are very old, established, and often saturated models.

Web 2.0 is already a bit of a tired buzzword. The read-write web concept is sound – even the inventor of the web now has a weblog – but too many services are popping up with the “… with tags!!!” or “… with AJAX!!!” business model. That’s not ever what it’s about. I harp on about it, but it does come down to this: the Internet is people. It’s all about connections. If the technology is the part of your model that you develop first, and you’re trying to find a use around it, you’re never going to really succeed.

One example in the education sphere is an LMS (or VLE; choose your acronym). You might think weblogs are cool, but slapping a weblog into a course management system isn’t going to provide much extra functionality. Sure, weblogs might be cool right now, but the system you end up with isn’t going to have the spirit of either an LMS or a blogging system. You’ve let technology drive the project and the hybrid’s spirit is suddenly about programming something rather than empowering people to communicate. You’ve got to take a need, or a concept about people interacting, and then find technology to fit once you know what you want. That’s where technology innovation happens, because you’re constantly having to develop new ideas to match the social concepts you’ve come up with, and it’s where the frontiers will be.

This is why with Elgg, our position has always been that it is not a replacement for VLEs, and we’ll never incorporate VLE functionality. We think it’ll happily run alongside them – as it shortly will with Moodle – as a set of tools that serve different functions. But as soon as you try and kludge them together into one thing, you muddy the waters and the resulting software will likely just be an aimless, albeit impressively large, set of functions that don’t sit very well together. The intentions of both types of software are different, and if you combine them without a driving social reason, the intention is lost.

The average Internet user, student or member of faculty isn’t going to care that a particular service has a weblog, tagging, XML-RPC, AJAX, CSS 3, SVG, FOAF, RSS or any other technology you can name. They are going to care that it lets them share information with each other in more efficient and interesting ways.

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