Web 2.0 and the Participative Era, or how the New Applications of Web 2.0 are Going to Revolutionize Everything up to our Enterprises and our Democracies by Liberating the Participative Spirit the Human Beings Seem to Possess.

It is no more a mystery for anyone that we have entered the Web 2.0 era. Precisely since October 2004, date of the first Web 2.0 conference according to the article in Wikipedia, by O’Reilly, Batelle and Dougherty. This is how it defined this concept of Web 2.0 (Wikipedia) :

  • the Web as a platform
  • data as the driving force
  • network effects created by an “architecture of participation
  • innovation in assembly of systems and sites composed by pulling together features from distributed, independent developers (a kind of “open source” development)
  • independent developers (a kind of “open source” development)
  • lightweight business models enabled by content and service syndication
  • the end of the software adoption cycle (“the perpetual beta”)
  • software above the level of a single device, leveraging the power of “The Long Tail

It is very interesting to note that (according to the same Wikipedia article) :

“An earlier usage of the phrase Web 2.0 was as a synonym for “Semantic Web”, and indeed, the two concepts complement each other. The combination of social networking […] with the development of tag-based folksonomies and delivered through blogs and wikis creates a natural basis for a semantic environment.”

On the other hand, ScotT Mc Nealy, former SUN’s CEO, declares on February 24 2006 , on the occasion of the twenty four years of the company :

“The biggest industry trend in the IT sector is the move from the Internet world to the participation age […] With regard to the move away from the “Internet age” to the participation age, in which instant messaging, blogging, e-mail and podcasting are the norm, McNealy said this move was a good and positive thing and would enhance all forms of media.”.

These definitions lead me to a few preliminary comments before entering the subject :

  • The term “architecture of participation” has been created first to describe basically the processes of open source development. This is rather evident, since the same processes apply to the creation of content in a broad sense ( there are even a license for using this, called creative commons license), and not just programs.

  • Data-Driven” seems too technical an expression. It is not the “Data” that the users manipulate, but a “Content”. If there were no interpretable meaning associated to the data, the user wouldn’t do anything, and wouldn’t participate. You don’t participate around a relational database of statistical numbers. However, you may participate around a content describing or interpreting these data. This is why, without a confrontation with this definition, at the time, I preferred suggest Content-Oriented as a name to this new vision ( in a note in my blog entitled “the end of the file era, towards the content era”).

  • Semantic Web” has always seemed to me as an “oversized” term. Because semantic signifies meaning, and when you use the word meaning you imply interpretation. However, the Web, and also the technologies derived from it, are still unable to interpret the meaning of the content managed by them. Therefore it is the final user who interprets it. Semantic here simply means structuring some data, like RSS threads, blog notes or wiki pages. It is then better to talk about “Structured Web”. Fortunately the term used is “Web 2.0” and not “Semantic Web”.

  • McNealy talks about the “participation age”, and names instant messaging, blogs, email and broadcasting. He forgets among others the wikis, social networks and citizen newspapers , but the error has surely been corrected since. He is right anyway to say that we have entered the participation age.

  • And consequences are enormous, not only for our daily activities, but also for our enterprises and our democracies.

Content and Flow

All those who are interested in the Web have noticed during the last two years that something has fundamentally changed. Personally I feel coming back to the source of the internet, in the 1993-1995 era when internet lovers of the time chatted in IRC, exchanged the best tips and tricks from one side of the globe to the other, had extraordinary encounters, etc. This epoch of exchange and human relations seemed to have disappeared with internet’s commercial boom, and here we see that blogs have once again changed everything, since a few years ago in the USA and recently in France, and have permitted once more the creation and emergence of totally interactive human communities. We may call them social groups, interest groups, or give them any other denomination, the result is the same and this is what we are interested in here, these people who would have never gotten together in real life, get to know each other and share a lot in the virtual world, even though they may then continue to the same in the real world.

And so we have entered, at least for the general public, into the content era : products consulted, exchanged, shared, broadcast directly online, with no other intermediate. We are subject to a continuous flow of information through email (note that teenagers almost never use this tool) or through IM and now RSS threads.

We are structuring our lives via this flow of information, through both our individual and collective actions, since all this flow of information come from other people (our enlarged social network = real + virtual relations), even though sometimes timidly, we participate in this flow by gradually making our own contribution (some comments here and there, opening a blog, a public and taggable photo album, etc.)

Is this collaboration? Yes and no, for collaboration has always been meant to be structured and “working” (working with others – on a common task), responding to strict rules established by the community who collaborates. However, we can easily notice that facing such a tremendous flow of information , it is not possible to do structural collaboration, or anyway, it cannot constitute the backbone of inter-human relations. Only participation becomes possible ( involvement, association according to dictionary definitions), which is a wider concept than collaboration.

Participative Web

Blogs, wikis and social networks of relations constituting new Web 2.0 communities on the one hand, and the ability to comment, to create links, to become part of virtual networks, to modify content written by others, to publish one’s own articles in citizen newspapers, to vote online, on the other hand, are all changing the relational mode between individuals, where everybody is both actor, author and reader. This type of relation is quite more than collaborative, it is participative.

Consequently we are all participating, thanks to the internet, in the creation of a continuous flow of content, which gradually reshapes all along depending on the needs of everyone and bring us into a new dimension: the Participative Web.

Many steps have been successively taken since the emergence of the Web, and tools as well as Websites or intranets and extranets have gradually followed these evolutions. The pattern includes five steps :

  • Publication

  • Interaction

  • Exchange

  • Collaboration

  • Participation

These five steps are like Russian nested dolls, they are nested one in the other, the smallest being that of publication.

The participative mode is unstructured, transverse, evenly spread, non-hierarchical. Paradoxically, structured collaborative tools could hardly find their way in the organizations who are themselves highly structured. In fact it appears after 15 years of producing diverse collaborative work software that it is hard for human beings to work structurally.

Inversely, participative tools, setting practically no structures, and creating an information chaos in large volumes, are rapidly being adopted by users themselves, even though they may be faced with structures and hierarchies established within the organizations (a boss can hardly accept his subordinates make a comment on the Web page he has published, and more so if they edit the content…)

Is this an unchangeable situation? No, the experience of Web 2.0 and the massive adoption by common users show the opposite : this is an unavoidable evolution. And we, who have worked so many years within the collaborative structure, know vividly that the human nature prefers a non-organization to a structured organization, even though cycles of reorganization may follow.

And so we have entirely entered the Participative Web era, commonly called Web 2.0, which due to its use, deeply modifies the relations between human groups, inside or outside structured organizations, and is going to give a blow to hierarchical relations as well as the relations of power in our societies. This can but contribute to an awakening of the creative and live forces from within each of us, on condition we can manage to control them properly in order to remain productive and create value.

Participative Web is then the ultimate step in terms of organization and creation of value. It is going to create its own rules, its own uses, and we are only beginning. Everything remains to be constructed. The enterprise will be badly shaken (Enterprise 2.0 has been in fashion since several months ago) and so will democracy ( Democracy 2.0, discussed for a long time in the blogshere, and maybe working in real life in the months to come).

Let’s get prepared, for the new generation has already entered this dimension. And like all great changes in paradigm, we should get involved in using it in order to understand it, to become part of it, and then be able to benefit from it. Otherwise we would be taking a big risk in staying on the roadside…

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