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October 05, 2005

Web 2.0, I Think

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

So far as adapting to new computer concepts goes, I like to think that I do OK -- at least for someone my age. After all, how many 50-somethings get anything whatsoever about the impact of digital technology on culture? I have arty Boomer friends whose entire response to recent tech developments has been to feel old and depressed. Meanwhile, on and on I blab about the transition the world is making from traditional to digital culture. Plus I do my blabbing online! I post images to my blog! I know the HTML commands for "boldface," "italics," and "indent this passage"! Do I rock or what?

Still, I have my limits. For the life of me, I can't wrap my mind around what an "RSS feed" is, for instance. Apologies to anyone who wants a 2Blowhards RSS feed, by the way. I have no idea what such a thing might be, let alone how to provide one.

But there's an even more mind-warping development than RSS feeds happenin' around us these days: "Web 2.0." I suspect that zillions of people understood this idea the moment they heard their first description of it. Me, I'm not only baffled by the concept, I'm dismayed by its existence. I'm starting to feel old and depressed myself.

(Note to younger visitors: One earth-shaking paradigm shift per lifetime seems to be about what the human organism can contend with. When a second comes along, its effect isn't to make you feel excited and optimistic. It's to make you want to move to a quiet coastal community and spend your days deciding which Early Bird special to try out for dinner.)

As far as I can tell, "Web 2.0" refers to the way the Web is evolving into a vast sea of data-chunks, to be mixed and remixed at every websurfer's will. Web 2.0 isn't a giant, free, combo library/magazine-store; nope, it's a happenin', ever-morphing, beeping-and-booping arcade to be interacted with. From the online creator/consumer's point of view -- and I guess it's now a given that we're all creator/consumers -- where Web 1.0 was about providing sites for surfers to visit, Web 2.0 is about serving the surfer's experience.

I've taken a couple of timid steps out into Web 2.0 waters. The "social bookmarking" service Del.icio.us is certainly amusing, and the photo-sharing service Flickr is plenty cool. Many people seem to enjoy 'em, and to know exactly how they want to make use of 'em. But for my own purposes? ... I dunno. Once I'd poked around Del.icio.us and Flickr, made a little sense of what they were about, and experienced the inevitable "the very fabric of life is changing" cyber-rush, I haven't revisited them often. Call me 20th century, but my appetite for messing-with-the-web seems to be limited to browsing, writing, emailing, shopping, data-storage, and commenting.

Well, mostly. Recently I've bumped into a couple of Web 2.0 services that I suspect I will be making regular use of. Writely is a web-based word processor that enables you not just to create pieces of writing online, but to collaborate on them too. Images, graphics, and hyperlinks are allowed, as is publishing the results as web pages.

In my explorations, Writely has worked so well that I've found myself becoming convinced that all word processing ought to be web-based. After all, what sense does it make for a document to be accessible to you at only one computer? We move around. We're at home, we're at work, we're on vacation. Why shouldn't we be able to access our writing projects via any computer that's hooked up to the web?

And why shouldn't documents be available -- available by design -- to be worked on by more than one person? People seem to be working as teams more and more anyway; it seems to be a given of Web 2.0 that most future projects will be collaborative. (It's interesting the way digi-tech functions as a solvent, dissolving the traditional sense of the individual's autonomy, no?) Anyway, three cheers for Writely, which is currently in beta and is currently free.

I'm also fascinated by wikis. Transfixed by them, to be honest. "Omigod," says a maniacal little voice in me. "This is it! This is the answer to my every prayer!" OK, I'm hyperventilating. Still, have you bumped into wikis? Wikipedia is the best-known site based on wiki technology. (It's also probably the largest: 758,772 entries so far, and still growing.) Wiki technology can really hit an imagination hard.

Essentially -- and, as always, I'm grateful for corrections -- a wiki is stack of online notecards, with images, graphics, and tons of links. A wiki is like a miniature World Wide Web, in other words, but semi self-contained, and allowing for a variety of permission levels. A wiki might be completely open; everyone can see it, and everyone can modify the contents. But it might be completely private, available only to a subscriber list. It might also exist in an in-between state, with, say, a limited team available to mess with the contents yet with the the results publicly visible.

So far as I can tell, a wiki is basically an online version of an Apple HyperCard stack. Another note to youngsters: HyperCard was the first time this kind of technology -- stack of notecards, graphics, hyperlinks, easy to use -- became available to non-techies. Developed by Bill Atkinson and originally released in 1987 with Apple's System 6, HyperCard made a lot of people hyperventilate with enthusiasm. Educators especially loved the technology; the Voyager Company made some terrific CD-ROMs using HyperCard.

For all intents and purposes, though, Hypercard died the instant the World Wide Web caught on. After all, why go to the effort of creating hyperlinked notestacks if you can't make them available online? Wiki technology enables people to create online notestacks. (Fans of meta-ironies shouldn't miss Wikipedia's entry on HyperCard. And here's a wiki devoted to "everything HyperCard.") Groups or individuals can create their own mini-Wikipedias, with the topic being anything at all: dog breeds, medical procedures, family memoirs. I suspect that the reason wikis (like HyperCard) hit some people so hard is that they hold the promise of helping you create a reference source for your own mind. Or for a group's collective mind.

The catch so far with wikis has been that the technology hasn't been user-friendly. Creating and running a wiki has required lid-lifting geek-talents and backstage geek-abilities far beyond what most civilians possess.

Recently, however, "hosted wikis" have become available. These are the wiki equivalent of Blogger or Typepad. They're online services that provide it all, and provide it all online -- no downloads, no tweaking. All you have to is surf there, sign up, and begin doing your version of the wiki thang.

I've tried Schtuff , a hosted wiki service, and I have found it usable and reliable. It works well, and it's free. Sad to say, though, that Schtuff is still a tad geeky for tastes. It isn't that Schtuff is user-unfriendly. It's that it's user-neutral -- and the aesthete (and lazybones) in me needs more in the way of elegance and hand-holding.

So I'm moving my wiki activities to a higher-end hosted wiki service called Jotspot. Even though Jotspot ain't cheap, its developers have put an all-important EZ laminate on top of the basic wiki functionality. They seem to have civilized the wiki-software beast enough to make it acceptable. If you can use a word processor and if you can wrap your mind around the basics of what a wiki is, then you can use Jotspot. I've taken Jotspot out for a few trial runs, and I've been very happy with it so far.

But, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I've grokked this Web 2.0 thing yet. Have you? Has anyone?

Richard McManus and Joshua Porter's discussion of Web 2.0 for Digital Web magazine is the most helpful I've run across. On his own blog, Richard focuses exclusively on Web 2.0. Most of what he writes goes straight over my head, but brighter people than I will certainly enjoy his thoughts.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at October 5, 2005




Comments

Scary stuff. I don't understand it and what I do understand, I don't like. I agree that content is what's most important but the design is not completely irrelevant. The design is part of a site's personality. I created my own design and, amatuerish as it is, I want people to see it.

Still, I don't like the idea of being left behind so I would have an "RSS feed" if I knew how. In fact, from what I can tell by looking at my config file I should have one already but I guess I don't.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 5, 2005 02:45 PM



Funny, I suscribe to your feed and read new entries when they appear there:

http://www.2blowhards.com/index.xml

Among other things, it's an easy way to look at blogs only when new posts appear there.

Posted by: Miguel on October 5, 2005 02:49 PM



Isn't Writely a wiki? If not, what's the difference?

Posted by: houyhnhnm on October 5, 2005 02:50 PM



RSS is a Tivo season pass for the internet. Thanks for the links ... Would you mind if I drew up a potential redesign of the site?

Posted by: . on October 5, 2005 02:54 PM



Lynn S -- "Scary" is the word for it!

Miguel -- 2Blowhards supplies an RSS feed? I wonder how that happened ... But maybe I'm better off not knowing. Thanks for informing.

houyhnhnm -- You apparently could use Writely as a wiki, but you're discouraged from doing so. The Writely people want you to be thinking in terms of individual (if collaborative) documents, not in terms of hyperlinked stacks. Not that this should or will stop you, of course.

"." -- Tivo for the internet sounds good. And if you have ideas for improving any site I'm involved in, please let me know about 'em. Michaelblowhard-at-gmail-dot-etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 5, 2005 03:08 PM



Hi, I don't know what Web 2.0 means either, but I found a great online organizer that's considered to be in the category. Backpack is the name, and there's a free version that I tried last week before upgrading.

Many geeks are still defining Web 2.0 so I'll leave it to them, and just use the services I find useful.

Posted by: Aaron on October 5, 2005 03:18 PM



As another, if much less advanced than MB civilian, I have classic love/fear relationship to Web revolutions.
My attitude is one of a selfish consumer of goods, and whole Wiki wave makes me uncomfortable: "you expect me participate in creating this block of information? I have a job already, or three". I suppose, though, change is inevitable, so watch attitudes transforming, mine included.

Still, I have my doubts about novelty of some of the ideas listed as part of Web 2.0 revolution.
- aggregators of new content. As far as I know, much maligned (non-deservedly, in my opinion), Live Journal had have this aggregator for years, they call it "friends view". (See "about" page for explanations) - oh, and they now have RSS feed for non-LJ content, browser-free and open content access discussed in the article.

- "collaborators sharing on the web"' principle of Writley has been working for architects and designers for a long time now. 5 years ago I used to work for a company that used same idea for their Global Alliance" projects. In practice, this is how it looked: say our office in SF is designing local facility branch for Siebel. They've done site survey, drawn existing condition plan, posted results on password-protected page on company site and went home to get some sleep. Practically simultaneously we in NY open drawings and continue working on them, bypassing time zones, so our client has the job done faster.

I imagine this practice improved tremendously for the past 5 years, so who knows what advances I've been missing.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 5, 2005 04:03 PM



RE: RSS Feeds.
At first, I didn't understand RSS and the other blog/news subscriber feeds (XML, Atom), but after being directed to Bloglines - a free, browser-based app that only requires registration - by a friend I caught on pretty quick and now do most of my "browsing" with it.

Basically, these feeds are directed to whoever susbscribes to them (via apps like Bloglines) in full or truncated form, depending on the originating page's settings. If it's full, you don't even have to visit the page to read the entry, though many times it's much better to see the text and images formatted on somebody's blog over a generic white-on-black frame within Bloglines. Your suscriptions are kinda like an inbox, but instead of e-mail it contains blog and news posts. With Bloglines, you can categorize your subscriptions into themed folders, save them for later, clip them into folders, and make them public for people to see (mine is here - play around with it to get a better idea.)

Most blogs - and a growing number of online newspapers and other news sources - have some sort of feed. One of the things that makes Bloglines helpful is that you don't have to know the precise feed location, or even if a site has a feed, you can just enter the blog's address (www.2blowhards.com) and it'll find the feed for you.

For me, it's changed the way I interact with web pages. Rather than pointing and clicking, I start with my feeds and work from there. Sometimes I won't even leave the Bloglines page. Of course, this is good and bad, as the unexpected discoveries that come from browsing aren't there...or at least they're in a different form.

Posted by: John on October 5, 2005 05:43 PM



one very interesting part about bloglines is that they archive the feeds.

so when my website is down due to technical reasons (and that happens often; my server is 5 feet away and sometimes just coughs a lot), bloglines will still have the feed to my website even though the website itself is down.

This is tremendously useful to me.

Now that you mention font/legibility, it just occurred to me that your font is great and the one to my own website looks like crap.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 5, 2005 09:26 PM



to clarify:

the archived feeds are terribly useful to people trying to reach your site when it's down.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on October 5, 2005 09:28 PM



Robert, OT: after reading your poem in prose about Natalya Bondarchuk, I thought it strange how she's not associated as "Tarkovsky's actress" in my mind. He was notorious in recasting same actors over and over again: Solonitsyn, Grinko, Ogorodnikova; but not her and not Terekhova, two cult actresses of the time. Both still alive...

I looked her up, wanted to know what happened to her afterwards, found this interview; another reminder how actors's personality has nothing to do with their image, even consistent image, from film to film.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 5, 2005 10:55 PM



What is the HTML command for italics??

Posted by: annette on October 6, 2005 10:00 AM



Hmm, how to represent this without just creating some onscreen italics ... What an interesting puzzle.

OK, do this: words you want to italicize. Now replace the "q" in each case with an "i." So basically, what you're telling the browser is "begin italicizing here", and "end italicizing here."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 6, 2005 10:40 AM



Whoops, that didn't work. Time to try again.

OK, you've got a word or a few words you want to italicize. You need to put the commands for "italicize" and "end italicize" around those words. The commands go inside angle-brackets, which I don't seem to be able to get to appear onscreen. On my keyboard, angle brackets are on the same keys as comma and period. You put one with the point facing left and one with the point facing right next to each other, then put the letter "i" between them -- that's the command for "begin italicizing here." At the end of the passage you want in italics, type the same two angle brackets, and put "/i" in between them (without the quote marks). That's a slash then an "i". That'll tell the browser to end the italicized passage.

Now let me hit "post" and see if any of that makes sense ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 6, 2005 10:47 AM



words you want to italicize What'd I do wrong?

Posted by: annette on October 6, 2005 12:53 PM



Hey cool! I didn't do anything wrong! Thanks

Posted by: annette on October 6, 2005 12:54 PM



Annette,
here's a cheatsheet where more myracles're explained.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 6, 2005 01:10 PM



I just spent the last week at the Web 2.0 conference. Everyone from Barry Diller to Mark Cuban to Sergei to all the VCs and startup guys where debating what Web 2.0 is. And, I'd sat that your paragraph, "As far as I can tell..." is as good a summary as any of them put forward. I'd maybe say it's about people rather than stuff...

Posted by: Dan G on October 10, 2005 12:14 AM






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