I’ve seen a lot of comments on “what is next for Web 2.0” in the past few months, but most of those jump ahead to the “Web 3.0” stage of Cyberdyne’s Skynet artificial intelligence stage. I wanted to bring the discussion back to a less scary (well, at least not “end of the world” scary) topic of the next stage in Web 2.0, which I’ll call, “Web 2.1 – The Unsolicited Interloper.”

Web 2.0’s Controlled Discussion

The 2.0 stage moved us from a one-way online discussion into a method of two-way or multi-way discussion. Blogs allow us to comment; newspapers allow people to submit comments on just about any story they publish; and social media tools allow us to chat and connect with peers in a real-time environment. One of the things with the 2.0 world is that whoever writes, or manages the content usually has some type of control over the discussion that follows within the four walls of that content-even if the only recourse is to delete the discussion, or moderate the comments before allowing others to see them. The key to 2.0 is that you can have four walls around your content. However, the 2.1 stage could tear down those walls and allow interlopers in, and you’ll have very little control over what they have to say.
Two Web 2.1 tools – Google’s Sidewiki and DotSpots’ “Distributed Objects of Thought”
Two of the leading contenders to usher in my version of Web 2.1 are Google Sidewiki (see video demo) and DotSpots (see video demo). Both of these are browser extensions that allow anyone to place unmoderated comments on any webpage and allows anyone with the same browser extensions to view those comments and add their own comments as well. Sidewiki does as its name suggests and puts comments into a sidebar, while DotSpot places the comment ‘dot’ right in the text of the blog. Now, neither of these actually does anything to the blog post itself… it is simply a feature of the browser extension that allows the modification on the side (sidewiki), or within the text of the browser page (DotSpot). If you haven’t added the extension to your browser, then you wouldn’t see the comments at all.
Free-flowing commentary versus Free-Flowing SPAM
The idea behind the Web 2.1 tools is noble. Using the wisdom of crowds, information can become free-flowing, and more informative by allowing those reading it to also add information. The DotSpot video is a prime example of what the developers of the product wish to do. Now an article can have comments pointing to additional information and the ‘crowd’ can begin interacting with each other and add additional content (maps, videos, etc.) making (or rather morphing) the original information into something dynamic. No longer is the ‘crowd’ limited by the restraints of the website’s comments section. It is this freedom that is worrisome for most of us that develop original content on the web.
In the Web 2.0 world, I can delete comments that appear on my blog. In this new 2.1 world, I cannot. Instead, according to what I’ve read in the FAQ’s for the two resources, I’d have to request that content be removed because it is SPAM or abusive in some manner. This is the part that I think most of us would find most troubling. It is one thing for another blogger to rip my posts to shreds on his or her own blog, but to essentially add any comments you want and have it show up through the extensions on my blog seems to be something that I’d rather not have to deal with. Yes, I know that it isn’t “really” on my blog… it is on Google’s Sidewiki or DotSpots databases (somewhere in the cloud), but if you have these extensions installed on your browser, it can sure look like it is.
The Benefit of the Unregulated Crowd
Maybe the inconvenience of the occasional spammer is outweighed by Web 2.1’s dynamic platform. We’ve grown accustomed to being the moderators of the conversations over our writings. Losing some of that control is not a comfortable thought for me. But, maybe it is not a bad thing to loosen some of that control. Most things I’ve read on the topic of crowds say that the ‘unregulated crowd’ creates a better result over one that is. Perhaps I should just take the good with the bad when it comes to the unsolicited interlopers that the Web 2.1 world brings.
  • Greg,

    I find it interesting that your 2.1 interlopers are in fact re-inventions of ideas that date back some time. Web annotation is at least 14 years old (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WebAnnotation), and the idea of glossing texts is a mediaeval one (http://blog.tarn.org/2008/07/30/the-new-glossators/).

    I was a great fan of CritLink and Harvard's Annotation Engine, and envisaged them offering real value in a legal context (imagine law students annotating a legislative text or case report as part of the learning process, or practising lawyers sharing knowledge with clients or just inside the firewall). However, I don't think the world was ready for those ideas then. I hope it is now. (But I would prefer the facility to be browser-independent.)

  • Mark,

    You've hit upon my idea for my next post on this topic… I think one of the best uses for these types of annotation (Web 2.1) tools is on the Enterprise level. Something like DotSpots used behind the firewall can be a powerful collaboration tool when you have a team working on a project, or a group of attorneys that work in the same practice group. There is a lot of potential for something like this to allow attorneys to mark up a website with their comments (directly within the webpage so others know exactly where the comments are applicable.)
    As for the timeliness of Web 2.1, I guess the old saying of "there is nothing new under the sun" might apply here. I think we've had the ability to do things like this for a number of years, but only now are we getting to the 'acceptance' point of the technology.

  • Greg –

    Is this 2.1 or 1.9? It's an advancement, but my view was that these tools were for sites that did not allow the interaction we now expect with 2.0 sites.

    After all, why use the sidewiki when those comments can only be seen by those with the sidewiki application? Making a comment directly on the site exposes that comment to everyone.

    The same is true for internal where the existing systems have no ability to tag or annotate the content. You need to build another system to layer on top of the underlying systems to move them past 1.0.

  • hmm… good point Doug.

    The 'advancement' here seems to be the ability to comment directly within the blog or news post, but you may be right on the 2.x vs. 1.x terminology. My thoughts were that something like this exposes any site (1.x or 2.x sites) to the comments or additional resources that the 'crowd' brings, outside the control of the person managing the content. So, in a way it is 1.x because it requires the 3rd party layer to create or read, but in a way it is 2.x because it can work very much like a Google Wave session and allow the information to become very dynamic.
    (How's that for stradling both sides of the fence??)

  • Perhaps we should put this to a test:


    Personally, I don't like the sidewiki.

  • Let's try that link again:


    (Feedburner is creating new URLs)

  • Just for fun, I also added a DotSpot comment on this post: http://dotspots.com/d/19-not-21-tech
    FYI — It really works best in FireFox (it will not work in IE, and is limited in function in Chrome)

  • Great discussion. Could it be that this tool both 2.1 as well as 1.9?

    Collaboration and enhancing value of shared content is at the core of web 2.0.

    Adding a content layer that adds value to some users is definitely an advancement, and not 'mashing' it into one conversation available and shared by all, isn't.

    At the end of the day the social aspect of 'web 2.0' question is whether the tools helps a community gain from the knowledge, and in the above case it seems like the answer is 'Yes' and 'No', all depends on which community is intended to use the content.

    Personally, to me these tools feel like people are not really engaging in conversation where the conversation is, or with the author.

    As to Mark's comment, there is no doubt that the technology was always there, it is us, humans that need time to adjust and digest.

  • The point regarding leaving a comment on a website's own system, and it being viewable by all is a good one, but this method of user participation does also have its drawbacks for the user. Whilst your comment is viewable without any additional software, on busy sites I think there's a question if comments are 'viewable by all, but viewed by none'. I think you can often be lost in the shuffle.

    Having universal access to everyone's content, I think many are beginning to realize it's not all it's cracked up to be. The 'big things' on the web now seem to be about filters to make everything more manageable – you filter this mass of content to suit you through the people you respect and find interesting – your friends, colleagues and so on. Tools like these '2.1' services have the potential to really help people hone in on that stuff in a universal way across the web.

    IMO, though, the biggest problem perhaps with these services is how they're presented. 'Annotation' sounds so boring and academic. I think they need to find a spin with broad appeal if these things are to get wide traction. It's kind of a shame they've somewhat struggled to date, because there is a very exciting idea at the core of these services, IMO.

    (Disclosure: I work at a startup in this area: http://www.yaytrail.com . We're trying to address what we think have been barriers to the broader adoption of these kinds of services – so no sticky notes, no sidebars, no hovering content layers on top of pages here 🙂 Give it a whirl if you're interested and let me know what you think!)

  • OK, I like the concept of Web 2.1, I guess because not that many people understood Web 2.0. 🙂