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On the hunt for a Web 2.0 definition

Within minutes of firing up his laptop, Matt Bennett worked on several windows at the same time: dropping graphics on the popular networking site, MySpace, loading up his latest "American Battle Cry" production on YouTube and commenting on conservative political blogs.

At other times, he says, he also looks up articles on Wikipedia, sifts through news feeds and checks his beta Yahoo Mail account.

"I have no idea what Web 2.0 is," he said. "Is that some kind of software?"

Most of Bennett's daily activities on the Internet are examples of Web 2.0, and the 29-year-old historian from Cheyenne, Wyo., has joined millions of others who are changing the Internet without even realizing it.

Depending on whom you ask, Web 2.0 is either a technological revolution or meaningless jargon. But many say the concept is transforming the Internet--backed by ideas that bring people together, users who generate content and new, easy-to-use technologies that make it all possible.

On the human front, Web 2.0 means user-generated content. It includes social-networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn as well as wikis and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia anyone can edit. Web 2.0 ranges from video sharing on YouTube to classified advertising on Craigslist.

On the technology side, many Web 2.0 sites, though not all, are based on a technology called AJAX, which allows the sites to act much like software on personal computers. This includes hosting photos on Flickr, writing on Blogger, reading news feeds on Netvibes or typing a document on Google Docs.

All Web 2.0 sites have one thing in common. The more users sign up, the better the sites become, said Sarah Milstein, who works in the Web 2.0 team at O'Reilly Media, the company that come up with the term.

"It's hard to define because it describes so many things," Milstein said.

O'Reilly Media is a publisher and conference organizer, and its founder, Tim O'Reilly, recently came up with a condensed definition for Web 2.0, after it took him an entire article to describe the concept the first time around.

"Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform," O'Reilly wrote. "Chief among those rules is this: build applications that harness network effects that get better the more people use them."

But Tim Berners-Lee says the term "Web 2.0" doesn’t mean anything. Berners-Lee is credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web and currently holds the 3Com Founders Chair at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence.

"I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means," he said in a 2006 podcast interview on IBM's developerWorks Web site. "If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along."

There is not much of a quarrel with that thought at O'Reilly Media. Milstein, of the Web 2.0 team, says many of the ideas now driving Web 2.0 have existed since the 1990s.

"Ten, 15 years ago people had identified that the Web would become this, but it's only recently that the technology exists to allow it to happen," she said.

The technological factors range from cheaper than ever storage space on servers to complicated database systems. But in many cases people are finding Web 2.0 sites easier to use because of an interface programming code called AJAX, which stands for Asynchronous JavaScript Technology and XML.

Greg Murray, AJAX’s architect at Sun Microsystems, describes AJAX as the driving force behind a new breed of dynamic Web applications, like Gmail and Flickr. “These applications look and act very similar to traditional desktop applications,” Murray wrote in his blog.

Once loaded, AJAX essentially gives Web applications speed and flexibility. Traditionally, a Web page must be fully reloaded to change any of its content. AJAX eliminates that by serving as a data storage layer between the user and computer servers.

“Technologies such as JavaScript programming language and cascading style sheets have matured to the point where they can be used effectively to create very dynamic Web applications that will work on all of the major browsers,” Murray wrote.

An important component of both AJAX and Web 2.0 sites are feeds based on XTM technology. They allow content to be transferred regardless of its form on the original Web site.

For example, sites like MyYahoo or Netvibes allow users to read content from thousands of Web sites, all from a single customizable home page.

News aggregators have used feeds for a long time, but now feeds are providing access to all sorts of content, including e-mail and video.

So if this is Web 2.0, what was Web 1.0? At its core, the early Internet was brochure-ware, meaning just a place where information was placed for view, with no easy means of editing or interacting with it and other people, according to O’Reilly’s Milstein.

"The Web is always evolving and changing," she said.

Some are predicting Web 3.0 will come around in a few years. There is no clear definition for that either.

E-mail: anb2118@columbia.edu