The web 2.0 divide

Web 2.0 – chances are you’ve heard this buzzword before, if not from me, then perhaps from O’Reilly Media. In a general sense, it refers to the “new” direction the web is taking, being more user-content-centered, more social-oriented and featuring/implementing new technologies that make the Internet more interactive. But just how much of a difference is it really making, for the average user?

Guilt by association

I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the next technocrat for promoting the “web 2.0” term and how it’s going to revolutionize and change the web as we know it. But, it dawned on me the other day that perhaps it’s not all that it’s cut out to be. Sometimes, being enveloped in the “wow” factor of new technologies and what they could potentially be used for, causes one to put their head in the clouds, so to speak, for far too long to be in touch with reality.

For a while, I, like many, thought that other people just didn’t get it, and that soon enough, they would see what web 2.0 really meant and appreciate its benefits. I mean, for the tech-saavy individual it’s easy to see what benefits things like Ajax or a well-designed, standards-compliant website could offer; if nothing, they’re “cool” and have a nice “wow” factor.

From a technical point of view, these things are true. Just like gearheads who will stand around an autoshop marvelling at what’s under the hood of a nice auto that they just retrofitted, these technologies do have merit. But, what do they mean for the average user? More and more, I’m starting to believe the answer to be, “not much”. This isn’t a deficiency with the “average user”; to say so would be a gross generalization, and after all, this “average user” is your main customer.

Digg’ing a divide

A good example is digg. Launched late in 2004, the community-oriented news portal site offers the unique editorial system of user-submitted news. Anyone can submit a link to a news story, which can then be “dugg”, or voted up, by other users. Stories with a lot of diggs reach the front page, where they can be seen by more people. (This also creates a sort of “mob rule” effect, but that topic is for another day.) Digg has been quite a success, with currently over 400 000 registered users, myself included.

Digg is also the quintessential web 2.0 site – not only does it feature a strong, community-oriented website with content that users determine, but it also has many web 2.0 design features, such as nice design/layout, and many Ajax-enhanced functions, such as when you digg a story. The site has also spawned a new term, “the digg effect”, when a website featured in a popular news story becomes slow or unusable because of the mass of traffic directed to it from digg.

Though digg is quite popular, it is also quite a niche website, which may be somewhat of a small surprise. According to some statistics, 52% of digg users are “IT professionals, developers or engineers”, and furthermore, “39% publish their own blog”. These are definitely the people who are proponents of web 2.0 and the like, since the blogosphere has been quite successful in driving innovation in web technologies.

Additionally, traditional online news outlets like the New York Times, are still way ahead of digg in terms of web traffic, according to some reports. All of this leads me to believe that the vast majority of web users don’t care, or don’t know, about sites like digg, which are almost universally praised among tech-saavy circles.

It’s all in the design

Another thing that got me thinking was the generally-accepted idea that if you want to make a popular website, you need to have a good design and also offer all sorts of fancy features. This doesn’t appear to be so, as indicated by the popularity of sites like MySpace.

I think this belief arose for a few reasons. Firstly, many of us have spent hours creating a design that looked great to us; after all this work, it would be hard to believe that other people could not find an attractive design a good reason to keep visiting a website. Secondly, many of the websites that catch our attention and are popular, are also well-designed. Those that weren’t well-designed, we didn’t bother to return to, since they didn’t appeal to our niche. However, these are the sites that may have more broad appeal, and hence remain popular despite their horrible design.

Niche is still good

Which brings me to my final point – while it’s cool to have a well-designed site that features all sorts of nify web technologies, do not fall into the trap of believing that this alone will make it popular. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that web 2.0 will soon become known and praised by all, because it probably won’t. And, don’t be completely dumbfounded about why the general public can’t understand why web 2.0 is all-that-and-more; they’re not stupid, it’s just that it is still quite a niche topic, and is just fine the way it is.

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