Don’t take your memes to town  

By Bill de hÓra under Then they laugh at you..., Theory on 07. August 2005

One of the most interesting characteristics of the Web is that it doesn’t version. The Web is a bona-fide computing ecosystem, and is along with email, one of the killer applications of another system, the Internet, itself designed for high-survivability and to deal with massive physical infrastructure damage (it’s literally nuke-proof). The Web evolves as does the Internet it runs on. Versioning for the Web makes no sense whatsoever.

So what’s this Web 2.0 thing then? Tim O’Reilly feels that it’s a valuable meme:

The reason that the term ‘Web 2.0’ has been bandied about so much since Dale Dougherty came up with it a year and a half ago in a conference planning session (leading to our Web 2.0 Conference) is because it does capture the widespread sense that there’s something qualitatively different about today’s web.

Web 2.0 is the Web for Mr. Safe and his management team. This helps bring shrinkwrap software, advertiser, broadcast and publish media people bringing to the Web, as it actually is, with enough of their old concepts out of their comfort zone. It does however choose to frame the Web in terms of the old models. Given the history of what hapens when old ideas knock up against the Web, it’s arguably risky then, for Mr Safe and his team to actually believe it fully. Sometimes you have to take a phenomenom on its own terms rather than it terms of your existing paradigm . Most recently to see what happens when the old ways don’t carry over, take at look at the IT industry’s Web Services efforts.

Anyone that thinks that the Web is something that evolves according to a release cycle fundamentally doesn’t understand it. If you could version the Web it wouldn’t work properly – support for versioning would be a bug. I think this is why Tim Bray doesn’t like Web 2.0, which is where this recent conversation began:

It’s not only vacuous marketing hype, it can’t possibly be right.

It’s a broken memeof sorts, perhaps one only a dinosaur could enjoy. Other developers like Dare Obasanjo are working through their transition from the Web as place to run a websites to the Web as a place to run platforms. Here’s Obasanjo responding to Tim O’Reilly’s take on Web 2.0:

Reading stuff like Tim O’Reilly’s just leaves me scratching my head. I completely grok the simple concept that folks like me at MSN are no longer just in the business of building web sites, we are building web platforms. Our users are no longer just people interacting with our web sites via Firefox or IE.

But even that idea – web platforms – seems dysfunctional. In the software industry a platform is a chunk of software infrastructure other people innovate on. It’s the closest the industry has ever had to a toll-booth. You build it and they will come, and pay to drive over it – how cool is that? Unfortunately, ‘web platforms’ are based on the collective hallucination that the Web ofers a viable means to support such API based architectural franchises. That being something of a cargo cult suggests it’s unlikely to work. Future franchises will be built around access to data not access to software. As with versioning, if the Web were an operating system or a platform, we’d need to file a bug report against it. Heck, it’s turtles all the way down – being able to file a bug report would be a bug.

Ian Davis meanwhile get closer by describing Web 2.0 as a state of mind:

Here’s my take on it: Web 2.0 is an attitude not a technology. It’s about enabling and encouraging participation through open applications and services. By open I mean technically open with appropriate APIs but also, more importantly, socially open, with rights granted to use the content in new and exciting contexts.

So it seems while the term Web 2.0 might miss the mark for technical types, it has broader value. Here’s Stephen O’Grady’s take on it (from the comments):

Web 2.0 is similar to that of Ajax. in and of itself it’s probably inaccurate, non-descriptive and misses the point. And yet, I’m favor of it. why? For two reasons: 1.) it’s propagated widely enough to have some widespread recognition, and 2.) it neatly packages everything up for the non-digerati who, after all, is the majority of the population.

What’s interesting in all this, is that while the toolsets and technologies are surely getting better, core Web architecture isn’t changing that much. What’s happening is that people’s ability to innovate is improving and that seems to come about by accepting Web thinking as much as any recent improvement in the toolchain. In short, instead of trying to make the Web a good place for your business or technology to function, adapt your business or technology to function well on the Web.

9 Responses to “Don’t take your memes to town”

  1. stephen ogrady:

    hey Bill - great to see you blogging at lesscode :) anyhow, my take on Web 2.0 is similar to that of Ajax. in and of itself it’s probably inaccurate, non-descriptive and misses the point. and yet, i’m favor of it. why? for two reasons: 1.) it’s propagated widely enough to have some widespread recognition, and 2.) it neatly packages everything up for the non-digerati who, after all, is the majority of the population.

    i think all of us in the technology business (myself included) have a tendency to look at terminology and naming too literally (witness all the hideously unwieldy product names out there) and forget that, for most people, the technology doesn’t matter. if Joe User looks at Web 2.0 and thinks “more functional web site,” i’d argue it has some utility.

    but neither do i have anything vested in the term, so if someone comes up with something better that more accurately explains the transition - gradual though it may be - i’ll give it fair consideration.

    comment at 07. August 2005

  2. Ryan Tomayko:

    Excellent post, Bill! I have to tell you that my face is literally stuck in a dumb smiling position for taking the time to post here!

    comment at 07. August 2005

  3. Bill de hÓra:

    Stephen, thanks. I lifted your comment and tweaked the post to tone it down a tad. If Web 2.0 works to get mindshare, that’s good news.

    Ryan, You have no idea. I feel like I just burgled the place!

    comment at 07. August 2005

  4. stephen ogrady:

    no worries at all. lesscode for everyone ;)

    comment at 07. August 2005

  5. Labnotes » Web 2.0: Architecture vs Meme:

    […] Link: http://lesscode.org/2005/08/07/dont-take-your-memes-to-town/ […]

    pingback at 07. August 2005

  6. Mike Champion:

    All I know is that my hype alarms go off when lots of people start talking knowingly about a vaguely defined term and how it will change the world. Think of “SOA”, “ESB”, ad nauseum before getting too excited about ideas such as Web 2.0 and AJAX that are taking the geek world by storm. Don’t think that just because those other ideas came from Mr. Safe’s comfort zone rather than the Web-head comfort zone that you are immune to the same dynamics of groupthink, wishful thinking, etc. that are common to all of us humans.

    Also, there’s no doubt that HTTP, XML, etc have made it far easier to share data, but beware of somewhat grandiose statements such as “Future franchises will be built around access to data not access to software.” The chances are that we will continue to use both approaches, and their relative popularity will oscillate. About the only advantage I know from being an old fart is that you see this stuff come and go: data-centric vs code-centric, declarative vs procecedural, dyanmic vs static languages, design first vs code first (or test first), etc. The only certainly :-) is that what’s obvious to the trendy cognoscenti today will sound pathetically clueless in a decade … and trendy again in about 25 years. Heathly skepticism about all the hype and grand theories — from friends as well as foes — is the only antidote I know.

    comment at 08. August 2005

  7. Ryan Tomayko:

    I sit in the middle on this one. On the one hand, it’s impossible to argue with Mike about the negative effects of vague labelling like “SOA” and “ESB” when used as traditional marketing terms. At the same time I think they’re very useful starting points in getting a group of people to coalesce (or not) around a basic idea.

    The way I see it, these terms (”AJAX”, “Web 2.0″, “SOA”, “ESB”, “Open Source”, “REST”, etc) are taken up by some community because they agree (or think they agree) at some basic level on future direction. They serve less as marketing terms initially and more as general tools for discussion. Or perhaps tools that are used to market ideas to other people that might be able to lend more definition to the simple meme.

    What happens from there can be something great or something shitty - we’ve seen both. What we might be seeing with these terms is the process of ideas forming followed by either solidification or failure as it’s happening, which is kind of new and weird. Ideas are no longer something formed only by an individual or closed group but something that can evolve out in the open. That seems to have pros and cons.

    In general there’s a lot of confusion around what stage one of these ideas are in and then you have ideas that are mislabeled. I think “REST” is a good example of this. There’s the formal definition and then a kind of vague promise as to what systems following certain aspects of its design might be capable of. But most people don’t mean Fielding-proper-REST when they talk about it and confussion ensues.

    In the end, I think what we’re seeing is a process evolving that might be studied and better understood. You have an incubation phase where the fitness of a meme is measured followed by either quick solidification into an actual concrete term (e.g. “AJAX” possibly) or long drawn-out debate and eventual failure (e.g. SOA).

    Which way will “Web 2.0″ go? It’s probably too early to tell but placing the blame for certain terms’ eventual failure to manifest themselves as concrete things on the act of creating a term seems a mis-diagnosis. Some ideas will succeed, some will fail. Saying that people shouldn’t throw ideas out until they are fully defined seems like a sure way of decreases both potential successes and failures.

    comment at 09. August 2005

  8. james governor:

    I guess because i am a dumb ass that can’t hack for toffee i come at this from a different angle. I watch the language games, the buzz, hype and all that. What makes a technology stick? People… not code.

    As Ryan says tomorrow, enterprise software is a social phenomenon. Aren’t all phenomena social?

    I agree with Stephen (strange how often I do, some weird hive mind shit). Arguing against Ajax or Web 2.0 is kind of like arguing against the war on terror. or arguing against Al Quada for that matter. Its amorphous, ugly, and in the case of TWOT case, just plain wrong, but you can’t deny the social energy supporting the ideas, and the outcomes they create. We can’t avoid hype any more than we can avoid excitement and disgust.

    AJAX and Web 2.0 are movements, not technologies. You can compete against a technology using technology but you can’t compete against a social (or bowel) movement using technology.

    Tim talks about faux memes. For it to be faux it would have to be unsuccessful.

    Its a fashion industry, folks, whether the engineer inside likes it or not. Say what you want about AJAX, who invented it, or whatever. But you can’t deny the energy and outcomes the idea has generated. Full credit to adaptive path. Talk about a thousand flowers. So what if MS put forward the technology initially. What matters is how we use technology. There is nothing new in IT (danny sabbah).

    Remember the file and print revolution? That was a revolution of language, as much as technology. Language created a context for things to get done. “Oh that’s what you mean” - that is a great idea. An entire community of third parties, a powerful new vendor, Novell, later displaced by Microsoft, a whole new way of thinking about delivering services to end-users… that end users and lines of business could understand. Language holds communities together and in effect creates possible outcomes.

    The technology industry is an ongoing, ever evolving and mutating battle of ideas, and memes like Web 2.0 carry powerful payloads.

    I will fight for my right to remix.
    I believe in loosely coupled services.
    I believe that DRM adds nothing to the customer experience.

    Web 2.0 is a manifesto not a technology.

    Ajax too.

    I have been meaning to blog on this, but it came out as a rant here

    general tools for discussion - yes!

    As for hype alarms - what about passport, web services, or any number of MS initiatives.. its part of the blocking and tackling of business today.

    Finally though Mike holds the ideal position. the zen of informed skepticism. Now if we could just get you off the WS-I uber alles cool aid we could make some progress here…. ;-)

    comment at 12. August 2005

  9. Mike Champion:

    “Its a fashion industry, folks, whether the engineer inside likes it or not. Say what you want about AJAX, who invented it, or whatever. But you can’t deny the energy and outcomes the idea has generated.” Yup, absolutely, but for good and bad. AJAX/REST/Web2.0 have lots of energy today and cool things are happening, but they will probably be out of fashion in a few years and some other thing will be the hip buzzword du jour. Probably just about the time the energy gets dissipated addressing the nasty boring problems of documentation, security, moving forward without breaking backward compatibility, all that stuff that is so hard that hardly anyone will do unless the Pointy Haired Boss is kicking you in the butt. Fashion keeps the world from getting boring, but today’s fashions will BE boring very soon. How excited are you about P2P these days? Zzzz…

    Of course there are some timeless classic ideas that never stay out of fashion for long and Web 2.0 probably has more then its fair share of them, but that won’t keep the fashion industry from decreeing the geek equivalent of “pink is the new black” (as my daughters told me a year or two ago) and then “black is the new pink” (I believe I saw this somewhere recently).

    “Now if we could just get you off the WS-I uber alles cool aid ” — is that addressed to me, Microsoft, or who? I’ve never imbibed of that beverage if you mean the WS-I literally. If you mean the WS-* stuff, well it depends on what the meaning of is is :-) I try to be informed but skeptical about that stuff too — it has its place, Indigo might just possibly be a tipping point for the target audience (intranet / corporate developers, I think), but it will probably not dominate on the open web where Web 2.0 memes have taken root.

    If you mean Microsoft, I think it’s important to understand that Evil Empire Central does not pass out the KoolAid and make everyone drink it. Rather it’s sortof a chaotic system where some dominant themes such as Indigo / WS-* become strange attractors and get a lot of ideas circling around them, but there are an awful lot of other ideas bouncing around too. As Dare O. in particular makes clear, there is a haven for Web 2.0-ish ideas at MSN, a fair amount of sympathy for REST-like ideas in the SQL Server organization, etc. If the dominant themes actually work, they continue to have a lot of things circling around them. If not (”Bob”? Passport? WinFS so far? The idea that IE is an integral part of the OS?) their attractive power will diminish and new ones will emerge … and yes, the PR people will then start touting the new flavor of KoolAid. But don’t confuse the KoolAid with the more nourishing and caffeineated beverages that actualy make the place run.

    comment at 13. August 2005

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