The Collective Wisdom at Work


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Most of the media is breathless about Web 2.0. While we've dipped our toes into the hyperbolic floodwaters here at EContent, our reporting has mostly been of specific applications, rather than a lot of the rah-rah coverage I've read in a number of mainstream and technology publications.

As I chatted with Shiv Singh from Avenue A | Razorfish the other day about his firm's latest effort, Corporate Intranets Best Practices Report: A User-Driven Web 2.0 Perspective, we found ourselves marveling at how this particular concept has so enraptured the media. On its face, what's not to love about Web 2.0? Web 2.0 poster child Wikipedia defines it as a term that "refers to a second generation of services available on the World Wide Web that lets people collaborate and share information online. In contrast to the first generation, Web 2.0 gives users an experience closer to desktop applications than traditional static web pages." I can just see the vigorous nods around editorial offices everywhere: "Yes, yes, sharing, learning, knowing, all that hive-knowledgey-goodness we were promised in (retroactively named) Web 1.0. There's some good ink here for sure."

Hey, I dig it. I routinely use Socialtext wikis in my work. I benefit from the collective collections at Flickr, and I have found a tag cloud or two mighty useful (even at Avenue A's Workplace Blog). But dude, the cover of Newsweek? I mean this is some geeky stuff, isn't it?

From a technological standpoint, Web 2.0 means Asynchronous Java Script and XML (AJAX)-enabled sites, which update dynamically. Just not as sexy as "remix culture" or "the living web," eh? These latter taglines emerged as the tech aspect of Web 2.0 morphed into the much hipper socially interactive applications they made possible—YouTube, MySpace, del.icio.us, et al. These taglines, like the title Web 2.0, are but slogans, appealing labels to sell us on a dot.com renaissance. 

What that hype has done, at least in the context of Avenue A | Razorfish's consulting practice, is reignite enthusiasm about some of the things the web can enable in an enterprise. Yet while a ton of trendy applications get rampant media coverage, Singh has found that "on the IT side, everyone knows what I'm talking about when I say Web 2.0. Business people really have no idea—exactly the opposite of what I'd have guessed." 

Singh has seen signs of hope in applying the theory in his practice, however. He points to a client using podcasts to communicate with staff and effectively leveraged wikis used internally for group projects (though he has found them less successful in public-facing initiatives). 

However, he cautions clients not to get too caught up in the hype. "It is left to be seen if it will have a dramatic impact or if it is more a coolness factor," he says. "For example, wikis are talked about as a Web 2.0 initiative, and yes, publishing of content is easier, but the Web 2.0 aspect of it—editing pages, the real-time collaboration—doesn't happen all that often." Charles Arthur at The Guardian calls it the 1% rule: "For every 100 people online, one will create content, 10 will ‘interact' with it (commenting or offering improvements), and the other 89 will just view it."

While targeted, internal enterprise projects fare better—particularly if participation is essential to accomplishing one's work—the effectiveness of most of these tools remains to be seen. Singh cautions that despite the catchy moniker, "Web 2.0 is not a single philosophy or technology, rather many that should be considered. And it is not something that will change your world overnight." 

On the other hand, he points to some very forward-thinking applications of Web 2.0 that may radically change things, like Social Search: "Say you have a massive intranet with a million pages and search doesn't work [very well]. Imagine if each time you searched, the top five documents in your results were those that other users had clicked on when they searched for the same terms." So even without actively participating (contributing content, tagging, creating a podcast, etc.), users' natural actions in going about their work contribute to more relevant search results. 

Web 2.0 inside the firewall isn't all work and no play, though. Singh has suggested to clients that there are fun ways to use the interactive processes for "prediction markets," which harness group intelligence. For example, if a company has six ad campaigns under consideration, they can create a space where employees can "trade shares" on the ideas. "Then execs can see the activity that happens around an idea," he says. 

While Web 2.0 may or may not live up to its press, nobody can scoff at the ability of its underlying technologies to enable some of the internet's founding principles. As Singh says, "Collectivism is very big." 

Yet it is one of the leading proponents of Web 2.0, Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield, who wins for the finest quote on the subject: "It's made of people!" Now do those of us who got the Soylent Green reference qualify as "2.0," or with our antediluvian cultural baggage, are we too old-school to make it out of Beta?