Meeting Web 2.0 Expectations

May 12, 2009

Web 2.0 is going to change your life! It's the greatest thing since sliced bread. You'll be thinner, richer, and happier – all thanks to Web 2.0 technology. Are you as tired as everyone else of the rhetoric that promises to change our lives and make us rich, when most of it is just marketing hot air?

So often the promise of new technology gets our hopes up about the way it's going to change the way we all do business. Web 2.0 was supposed to facilitate communication, secure information sharing, collaboration, and interoperability. It's brought us cultural phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. But other than helping you waste countless hours looking at wedding photos of your 11th grade boyfriend on Facebook, how has Web 2.0 lived up to its promise?

Well, every once in awhile, the Web 2.0 buzzwords, like "SaaS" and "crowdsourcing," actually make sense, and someone comes up with a way to make them really work. They don’t have to be empty words; they can solve real problems in new ways. Not too long ago, I came just such an example.

Web comic creator T. Campbell wrote a heartfelt appeal on his blog: “If you make a comic and put it on the Web, it's because you want that comic to be read. And if a comic deserves to be read, it deserves to be found. Especially by people who are looking for something like it. It deserves to be searched. If it can't be searched, a feeling of futility condenses in the air.”

These weren’t just empty words, however; he did something about it. He helped to develop the OhNoRobot web comics search engine, a search service, what I've been calling "remote hosting" or "remote search" – now known as SaaS. 

OhNoRobot is designed specifically for web comics, developed by T. Campbell with Ryan North, both of whom know the problem intimately. They started in November 2005, added a few features in 2006, and the service has been quietly working ever since. Campbell and North relied on some Web 2.0 buzzwords to help solve the problems that were presented by their search engine.

The text of the comics themselves poses a problem. Whether hand-lettered or typed, the words in the comic are just made up of black, white, or colored pixels.  Because there are no characters (no underlying bytes of Unicode or ASCII codes), the text is completely invisible to any search engine indexer software. OCR (optical character recognition) software would have a lot of trouble with the irregularities. That's where people come in.

User-created content, or "crowdsourcing," is OhNoRobot's solution. The readers, not just the comic creator, can transcribe the text and make it searchable. This takes the pressure off creators, especially those with a large archive of comics. There's a little button that says "Help Transcribe," which brings up a simple form for typing the words. That is what converts the text from bits to codes and makes it searchable; it's human-driven digitization. Crowdsourcing at its best.

This solution works pretty well; the web comic Unshelved had its entire corpus of about 2,500 strips transcribed in one week. Of course, it's a comic about librarians, so the readership is predisposed to do that sort of thing, and may have had an unfair advantage. OhNoRobot makes these transcripts searchable, not just from the website, but also via simple forms from the comics' pages. Because search forms send a request to the main OhNoRobots search server (instead of a local server), they can be used on any page, including hosted sites and blogs.

OhNoRobot is just the kind of thing the Web 2.0 people were hoping for: community collaboration allowing many people to build something really useful. This process can serve as a model for all sorts of transcription and metadata contributions. In other words, Web 2.0, at least in this case, has lived up to the hype.