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Web 2.0 and the Five Walls of Confusion

How Can the Average Person Sort Out What's Really Happening?

I was reading the coverage of MashupCamp on Tech.Memeorandum today and I came across Adam Greene's coverage of one of the sessions.  He was complaining a bit about the cognitive dissonance he was encountering trying to comprehend the data flows in Edgeio, Michael Arrington's prominently covered new Web 2.0 startup.  Specifically, his concern was that the average person would almost never be able to sort out what was really happening, even though Edgeio is specifically designed for the "blog garden" of relatively average users.

Unfortunately, I know this is a situation that's all too common.  The Internet, the Web, and the blogosphere have accelerated the pace of change and elongated the envelope of technological advancement so much that only the fastest learners and most avid followers understand what's happening at the place the bulge is most pronounced.  Adam calls this the wall of confusion.  And I agree that finding straightforward ways for folks to catch on and giving them simple, comprehendable explanations and examples will help enormously.  This is particularly true of the examples.  I find these to be far more illustrative of Web 2.0 than whiteboard sketches or my well-known visualizations. And in fact, this was what they used when they originally tried to identify what was happening with Web 2.0.





Along these lines, I've identified five conceptual walls of confusion that seem to trip up folks (or turn them off) most when trying to understand Web 2.0.  A particularly good example of the obtuseness that happens is a recent post in Wired that seemingly tried to explain Web 2.0 a bit, but only succeeded in confusing.  Perhaps this will help:


Web 2.0 and the Five Walls of Confusion


  • The Wall of Buzzwords: AJAX, The Long Tail, Mashups, Memes, SaaS, and many more buzzwords and acronyms put up an impenetrable wall for the uninitiated.  Yes, Web 2.0 describes dozens of interlocking design patterns and some good business models for online software.  But in our zeal, we forget how far out in the envelope we are.  Simple terms like online software, software in the browser, and the two-way Web are so much more approachable.  It's not too late, we can explain Web 2.0 in kinder, simpler terms. And we should.
  • The Wall of Hype:  This seems to have calmed down a bit but it also might just be moving around.  Web 2.0 hype does seem to have diminished in the face of some withering anti-hype and the hype cycle has moved more to Web 2.0-related developments like mashups and the latest round of Web 2.0 startups.  Nevertheless, Web 2.0 promotion continues unabated in certain circles along with the anti-hype and if you're not following closely, you don't know what to believe: whether Web 2.0 is the next generation of the Web, or if it's snake oil; if it's the future of software, or just a marketing gimmick.  I will give you my point of view one last time: Web 2.0 is real.  And for that good reason, and some not-so-good ones, there is a lot of hype surrounding it.
  • The Wall of Complexity:  If you look at the Wired post above it has a particularly complex diagram in it.  I actually drew that in order to create a pretty compehensive view of most of the moving parts in Web 2.0.  There are a lot and it's hard to figure out where to start as a user, much less a software designer.  The good news is that the good exemplars (Flickr and del.icio.us) and some of our approaches (like AJAX), actually make it pretty obvious what you're supposed to do.  But it's still very hard and what's still not conveyed very well is the sense of balance and proportion required.  In other words, you're not supposed to pile every single one of these Web 2.0 ingredients into the cake, bake it, and sell it to the nearest Web software giant.  It doesn't work that way. There is a constant feedback loop with your users on the Web that guide you in a close collaboration to add/remove features and capabilities while dynamically shaping and reshaping the product into what it needs to be at any given time.
  • The Wall of Significance.  Is Web 2.0 a major new revolution in the way software is created and used?  Probably.  But there's a lot of stuff to learn, especially about the softer aspects of online systems like collaboration and social software.  A lot of software developers, architects, and designers, more comfortable with the precise, exact parts that comprise software, are often pretty unhappy about this.  Unfortunately for them, these aspects are probably here to stay, but they aren't sure.  The competition for users, attention, and marketshare means you have to increasingly dangle the most effective engagement mechanisms or people will go elsewhere.  And because we're human, there are few more powerful draws that building a sense of ownership and community.  But in these early days, it's hard to tell if there really is a fundamental shift in first-order software design, or just a passing wave of faddish affectation.  Those of you who read this blog know where I stand, but it's hard for everyone to appreciate the significance of all this yet.
  • The Wall of Ignorance.  I find that most people in the real world (as in not-the-blogosphere) have no real idea what a blog is yet, much less a wiki.  If I sample my local IT shop, I'll get better answers but surprisingly not much better.  The real danger is in constructing such an advanced world that it alienates those that encounter it.  This is almost like the buzzword problem above but it's even more insular.  Fortunately, the very best Web 2.0 software blows past such problems and just lets people do their thing and not worry about what it's called.  I talked for a bit with Debbie Landa of Under The Radar at the TechCrunch BBQ over the weekend and she summed it up best (and I'm paraphrasing): "If I can't figure it out in a minute or two, I know it doesn't have it."  The bottom line is that great software will appeal to everyone and require no special knowledge, but all too many online software apps require all of that knowledge and will forever be relegated to users who are in the very tip of the progress envelope.  A pity indeed.

These walls are the biggest barriers to appreciating Web 2.0 and are holding it back from whatever fame and greatness it may be destined for. Not that it won't get there eventually.  But it's a giant world out there, even on the Web these days, and any message takes a while to transmit.  One thing is for sure though, it's been a fairly promising year.

What other walls of confusion does Web 2.0 face?

posted Tuesday, 21 February 2006

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