Web 2.0 Label Lacks Meaning, Magic

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2005-12-27

Web 2.0 Label Lacks Meaning, Magic

People love labels, especially marketers. Labels help people wrap ideas, products and markets into neat packages that are easier to understand. Things that are easier to understand are also easier to sell.

But labels can also be arbitrary and artificial, which render them useless for helping people understand what a specific technology or a product is really all about.

Even worse, a catchy label can make a bad business plan look like a sure winner. Vague labels dont help people make informed investment or buying decisions.

"Web 2.0" is an example of one of those terms that is so broad and so vague that its nearly impossible to pin down what it really means.

The term was invented less than two years ago in a brainstorming session between publisher OReilly Media and a marketing company, MediaLive International.

Tim OReilly, founder and CEO of the company that bears his name, attests that the term Web 2.0 was conceived as a rallying call for the recovery of Web business in the post-dot-com crash era.

Once the term was conceived, it became the name of an Internet business and technology conference sponsored by OReilly Media. Showing how fast this term has caught on, OReilly said that as of September 2005, a Google search returned more than 9.5 million citations for "Web 2.0."

OReilly defines Web 2.0 in part as representing the new technologies that have emerged from the wreckage of the dot-com collapse in the fall of 2001. AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Ruby on Rails and wikis are some of the technologies on the approved Web 2.0 list.

Web 1.0 was lead by companies such as Akamai, DoubleClick, Britannica Online, Ofoto.com and mp3.com, OReilly said. These ventures were succeeded by BitTorrent, Google AdSense, Wikipedia, Flickr and even a resurrected Napster. In this original form the Web 2.0 definition almost sounds reasonable.

Click here to read D. Keith Robinsons column on why we should pay attention to Web 2.0.

But the problem is that the term, perhaps like all good marketing terms, is as malleable as kids modeling clay. Anybody who doing business on the Web can claim that they were adherents of the Web 2.0 movement.

I recently received an e-mail message from a public relations operative who blithely claimed that his client "has been obsessed with the vision of Web 2.0 for at least 10 years."

Its a true visionary who started thinking about Web 2.0 before most of the rest of the world had managed to sort out Web 1.0.

Then there is the question of when Web 1.0 supposedly ended and Web 2.0 started. It wasnt the Web that melted down. It was the rotten business plans built on rank speculation and pie-in-the-sky assumptions about what Web technology would do for sales and marketing that caused the dot-com collapse.

Next Page: Wheres the magic?

Wheres the Magic


Even OReilly concedes that the Web didnt collapse with the dot-com market meltdown. The Web kept growing and evolving with hardly a blink as more people signed on every year.

Successful Web companies such as such as Amazon.com, Yahoo, eBay, MapQuest, MSN and Google were prosperous concerns in 2001 and have only grown bigger since then.

Many of the companies that have since emerged as market leaders, such as CRM (customer relationship management) companies Salesforce.com, NetSuite and RightNow Technologies, got their start well before the dot-com meltdown.

Web business would have recovered; new technologies and business models would have emerged whether or not anybody coined the label Web 2.0.

Some might say that in 2003, Web business and the IT industry needed some kind of marketing watchword to add momentum to the recovery from the 2001 recession. Web 2.0 was as good a label as any to get business rolling.

Its vagueness was its greatest asset, because it was all inclusive. Everybody could jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon and everyone is making the leap.

Click here to read Ryan Naraines analysis of why Yahoo survived the dot-com meltdown to become a Web 2.0 exemplar.

But a rallying call to join Web 2.0 could also be an invitation to participate in Bubble 2.0. For every good idea in the market there may be two or three bad ideas that are dressed up to look like winners because they carry the approved Web 2.0 label.

Every business cycle has its winners and losers. This one will be no different. The lesson that we should have learned from the last Web shakeout was that there is no magic or special sauce when it comes to the Web.

The laws of economics are no different whether people are using a mouse to point and click to buy goods and services, or a pen to fill out an order from the old Sears catalog.

AJAX, Ruby on Rails, RSS, wikis or any other reputed Web 2.0 technology wont make any business successful unless they are built into Web applications that work, are useful, make money and deliver value to customers.

Every venture, no matter what technology it uses, has to be judged on its own merits, not because it carries some catchy label.

John Pallatto is a veteran journalist in the field of enterprise software and Internet technology. He can be reached at john_pallatto@ziffdavis.com.

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