Blogging and the Wisdom of Crowds
One of the most highly touted features of the Web 2.0 era is the rise of blogging. Personal home pages have been around since the early days of the web, and the personal diary and daily opinion column around much longer than that, so just what is the fuss all about?
At its most basic, a blog is just a personal home page in diary format. But as Rich Skrenta notes, the chronological organization of a blog "seems like a trivial difference, but it drives an entirely different delivery, advertising and value chain."
One of the things that has made a difference is a technology called RSS. RSS is the most significant advance in the fundamental architecture of the web since early hackers realized that CGI could be used to create database-backed websites. RSS allows someone to link not just to a page, but to subscribe to it, with notification every time that page changes. Skrenta calls this "the incremental web." Others call it the "live web".
Now, of course, "dynamic websites" (i.e., database-backed sites with dynamically generated content) replaced static web pages well over ten years ago. What's dynamic about the live web are not just the pages, but the links. A link to a weblog is expected to point to a perennially changing page, with "permalinks" for any individual entry, and notification for each change. An RSS feed is thus a much stronger link than, say a bookmark or a link to a single page.
RSS also means that the web browser is not the only means of viewing a web page. While some RSS aggregators, such as Bloglines, are web-based, others are desktop clients, and still others allow users of portable devices to subscribe to constantly updated content.
RSS is now being used to push not just notices of new blog entries, but also all kinds of data updates, including stock quotes, weather data, and photo availability. This use is actually a return to one of its roots: RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's "Really Simple Syndication" technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's "Rich Site Summary", which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages with regularly updated data flows. Netscape lost interest, and the technology was carried forward by blogging pioneer Userland, Winer's company. In the current crop of applications, we see, though, the heritage of both parents.
But RSS is only part of what makes a weblog different from an ordinary web page. Tom Coates remarks on the significance of the permalink:
It may seem like a trivial piece of functionality now, but it was effectively the device that turned weblogs from an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlapping communities. For the first time it became relatively easy to gesture directly at a highly specific post on someone else's site and talk about it. Discussion emerged. Chat emerged. And - as a result - friendships emerged or became more entrenched. The permalink was the first - and most successful - attempt to build bridges between weblogs.
In many ways, the combination of RSS and permalinks adds many of the features of NNTP, the Network News Protocol of the Usenet, onto HTTP, the web protocol. The "blogosphere" can be thought of as a new, peer-to-peer equivalent to Usenet and bulletin-boards, the conversational watering holes of the early internet. Not only can people subscribe to each others' sites, and easily link to individual comments on a page, but also, via a mechanism known as trackbacks, they can see when anyone else links to their pages, and can respond, either with reciprocal links, or by adding comments.
Interestingly, two-way links were the goal of early hypertext systems like Xanadu. Hypertext purists have celebrated trackbacks as a step towards two way links. But note that trackbacks are not properly two-way--rather, they are really (potentially) symmetrical one-way links that create the effect of two way links. The difference may seem subtle, but in practice it is enormous. Social networking systems like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, which require acknowledgment by the recipient in order to establish a connection, lack the same scalability as the web. As noted by Caterina Fake, co-founder of the Flickr photo sharing service, attention is only coincidentally reciprocal. (Flickr thus allows users to set watch lists--any user can subscribe to any other user's photostream via RSS. The object of attention is notified, but does not have to approve the connection.)
If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence, turning the web into a kind of global brain, the blogosphere is the equivalent of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have a powerful effect.
First, because search engines use link structure to help predict useful pages, bloggers, as the most prolific and timely linkers, have a disproportionate role in shaping search engine results. Second, because the blogging community is so highly self-referential, bloggers paying attention to other bloggers magnifies their visibility and power. The "echo chamber" that critics decry is also an amplifier.
If it were merely an amplifier, blogging would be uninteresting. But like Wikipedia, blogging harnesses collective intelligence as a kind of filter. What James Suriowecki calls "the wisdom of crowds" comes into play, and much as PageRank produces better results than analysis of any individual document, the collective attention of the blogosphere selects for value.
While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole. This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls "we, the media," a world in which "the former audience", not a few people in a back room, decides what's important.
3. Data is the Next Intel Inside
Every significant internet application to date has been backed by a specialized database: Google's web crawl, Yahoo!'s directory (and web crawl), Amazon's database of products, eBay's database of products and sellers, MapQuest's map databases, Napster's distributed song database. As Hal Varian remarked in a personal conversation last year, "SQL is the new HTML." Database management is a core competency of Web 2.0 companies, so much so that we have sometimes referred to these applications as "infoware" rather than merely software.
This fact leads to a key question: Who owns the data?
In the internet era, one can already see a number of cases where control over the database has led to market control and outsized financial returns. The monopoly on domain name registry initially granted by government fiat to Network Solutions (later purchased by Verisign) was one of the first great moneymakers of the internet. While we've argued that business advantage via controlling software APIs is much more difficult in the age of the internet, control of key data sources is not, especially if those data sources are expensive to create or amenable to increasing returns via network effects.
Look at the copyright notices at the base of every map served by MapQuest, maps.yahoo.com, maps.msn.com, or maps.google.com, and you'll see the line "Maps copyright NavTeq, TeleAtlas," or with the new satellite imagery services, "Images copyright Digital Globe." These companies made substantial investments in their databases (NavTeq alone reportedly invested $750 million to build their database of street addresses and directions. Digital Globe spent $500 million to launch their own satellite to improve on government-supplied imagery.) NavTeq has gone so far as to imitate Intel's familiar Intel Inside logo: Cars with navigation systems bear the imprint, "NavTeq Onboard." Data is indeed the Intel Inside of these applications, a sole source component in systems whose software infrastructure is largely open source or otherwise commodified.
The now hotly contested web mapping arena demonstrates how a failure to understand the importance of owning an application's core data will eventually undercut its competitive position. MapQuest pioneered the web mapping category in 1995, yet when Yahoo!, and then Microsoft, and most recently Google, decided to enter the market, they were easily able to offer a competing application simply by licensing the same data.
Contrast, however, the position of Amazon.com. Like competitors such as Barnesandnoble.com, its original database came from ISBN registry provider R.R. Bowker. But unlike MapQuest, Amazon relentlessly enhanced the data, adding publisher-supplied data such as cover images, table of contents, index, and sample material. Even more importantly, they harnessed their users to annotate the data, such that after ten years, Amazon, not Bowker, is the primary source for bibliographic data on books, a reference source for scholars and librarians as well as consumers. Amazon also introduced their own proprietary identifier, the ASIN, which corresponds to the ISBN where one is present, and creates an equivalent namespace for products without one. Effectively, Amazon "embraced and extended" their data suppliers.
Imagine if MapQuest had done the same thing, harnessing their users to annotate maps and directions, adding layers of value. It would have been much more difficult for competitors to enter the market just by licensing the base data.
The recent introduction of Google Maps provides a living laboratory for the competition between application vendors and their data suppliers. Google's lightweight programming model has led to the creation of numerous value-added services in the form of mashups that link Google Maps with other internet-accessible data sources. Paul Rademacher's housingmaps.com, which combines Google Maps with Craigslist apartment rental and home purchase data to create an interactive housing search tool, is the pre-eminent example of such a mashup.
At present, these mashups are mostly innovative experiments, done by hackers. But entrepreneurial activity follows close behind. And already, one can see that for at least one class of developer, Google has taken the role of data source away from Navteq and inserted themselves as a favored intermediary. We expect to see battles between data suppliers and application vendors in the next few years, as both realize just how important certain classes of data will become as building blocks for Web 2.0 applications.
The race is on to own certain classes of core data: location, identity, calendaring of public events, product identifiers and namespaces. In many cases, where there is significant cost to create the data, there may be an opportunity for an Intel Inside style play, with a single source for the data. In others, the winner will be the company that first reaches critical mass via user aggregation, and turns that aggregated data into a system service.
For example, in the area of identity, PayPal, Amazon's 1-click, and the millions of users of communications systems, may all be legitimate contenders to build a network-wide identity database. (In this regard, Google's recent attempt to use cell phone numbers as an identifier for Gmail accounts may be a step towards embracing and extending the phone system.) Meanwhile, startups like Sxip are exploring the potential of federated identity, in quest of a kind of "distributed 1-click" that will provide a seamless Web 2.0 identity subsystem. In the area of calendaring, EVDB is an attempt to build the world's largest shared calendar via a wiki-style architecture of participation. While the jury's still out on the success of any particular startup or approach, it's clear that standards and solutions in these areas, effectively turning certain classes of data into reliable subsystems of the "internet operating system", will enable the next generation of applications.
A further point must be noted with regard to data, and that is user concerns about privacy and their rights to their own data. In many of the early web applications, copyright is only loosely enforced. For example, Amazon lays claim to any reviews submitted to the site, but in the absence of enforcement, people may repost the same review elsewhere. However, as companies begin to realize that control over data may be their chief source of competitive advantage, we may see heightened attempts at control.
Much as the rise of proprietary software led to the Free Software movement, we expect the rise of proprietary databases to result in a Free Data movement within the next decade. One can see early signs of this countervailing trend in open data projects such as Wikipedia, the Creative Commons, and in software projects like Greasemonkey, which allow users to take control of how data is displayed on their computer.