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Web 2.0 Manifesto: 'Nobody Knows Anything'Web 2.0 Manifesto: 'Nobody Knows Anything'

The people who really understand the Web know that nobody really understands the Web. (Zen enough for you?) Or, to put it more accessibly, to succeed, you can't try to out-think what your users want. You just have to try ... stuff. Which is why I'm so excited to be headed out to the <a href="http://en.oreilly.com/webexsf2008/public/content/home">Web 2.0 Expo</a> in San Francisco.

Alexander Wolfe

April 20, 2008

4 Min Read

The people who really understand the Web know that nobody really understands the Web. (Zen enough for you?) Or, to put it more accessibly, to succeed, you can't try to out-think what your users want. You just have to try ... stuff. Which is why I'm so excited to be headed out to the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco.Hundreds of developers, entrepreneurs, and marketing types will gather together, the smartest of whom know they don't know anything, and they'll talk about the latest in social-networking and collaborative Web applications. Right now this whole arena is amid such rapid churn that we won't know where things are headed until we have the benefit of hindsight a few years hence.

True, a bunch of people at a conference like this are probably more focused on how quickly they can "flip" (or fund) their company and make a bundle. But mostly everyone's genuinely trying to build stuff which can be of true benefit to users. (If it means anything, my three regular readers know I rarely wax so positively about anything.) What is Web 2.0? The most effective definition is the same one Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart provided in 1964, in trying to define obscenity. "I know it when I see it," he said. With Web 2.0, there's more than just Facebook and Twitter, but those two apps -- notice how I call them "apps," and not sites -- are emblematic and certainly can serve as "for dummies" defs. OK, so back to my more interesting thesis, which is that "nobody knows anything." I came to this after a several years of working on a bunch of sites, writing tech features and blogging a lot, and then studying traffic data. The latter is information on which stories and posts readers gravitate toward. Comscore, Nielsen/NetRatings, and Hitwise provide much of this info, in the form of site rankings and page-view data. People running sites day-to-day tend to use Omniture, which provides highly specific traffic data for individual stories. So here's the deal with "nobody knows anything." For starters, please consider that running a Web site is to surfing the Web as racing a car is to driving in everyday traffic. They're so different as to constitute completely different activities. No matter; everybody thinks they can run a Web site, just like every American thinks they can manage a baseball team or write a book. (The funny thing is, under Web 2.0 rules, anyone can run a Web site!) OK, so when someone (say, a print journalist migrating online or a kid out of school in her first new-media job) starts working on a Web site, on their first day maybe they're a wee bit intimidated. But they quickly see it's not that hard to post stuff and generate a bit of traffic. After one week, they're convinced they understand the Web, especially when that post they wrote on "The Top 10 Reasons Why [fill in anything here] Sucks" broke all previous site traffic records. But then a funny thing happens. In week two, all their assumptions are up-ended. Maybe that Britney Spears story didn't do that well, and the thought-provoking essay about the Pope's visits did. Hey, I know: I'll do serious stuff now. But, comes week three, and apparently readers want to read little else but stories about those trashy Florida schoolgirls who beat the crap out of a classmate and posted the thrashing on YouTube. Ah, now Web novice realizes that his/her assumption that she/he understood the dynamics of the Net after one week was incorrect. However, with a month under their belt, they've seen enough ebbs and flows to get a handle on it. Maybe they're also thinking, "How hard can this be?" Fast forward a few months -- because, after all, time on the Web is measured in dog years -- and one eventually reaches that point of true enlightenment when one realizes that one, in fact, does not really and truly understand the way the Web works. The analogy I prefer is that this is because the Web is kind of like the global weather system. There are so many variables that you can have a feel for what's going on, but never truly be able to "predict" or capture any single instance of anything. More important, whatever it is that we call the Web is a very, very rapidly moving target. It's changing all the time. Right now, I suspect we're coming up to an inflection point, where sites as the dominant way of presenting information to, and interacting with, users give way to applications. That's why I'm so excited about heading out to Web 2.0 in San Francisco, because apps will be the topic of discussion and debate. So remember, if you really know the Web, you know that nobody knows anything about the Web. This I know for sure. Like this blog? Subscribe to its RSS feed, here. For a mobile experience, follow my daily observations on Twitter. Check out my tech videos on this YouTube channel.

About the Author(s)

Alexander Wolfe


Alexander Wolfe is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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