Skip to Content

Web 2.0 Expo 2009: Web comes to its senses

[Part 0: Web comes to its senses] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 1: Sense of self] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 2: Sense of presence] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 3: Sense of place] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 4: Sense of governance] | [Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 5: Sense of community]

“Web 2.0 was in its infancy 5 years ago,” said Tim O’Reilly in his opening keynote at the recent Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. “A newborn baby sees, it hears, it feels,” he continued, “but it can’t quite make sense of all those sensations. Gradually, they start to make sense… If we think of the Web as a newborn baby, and Web 2.0 as a maturation of that baby, we have to ask ourselves: Is the Web getting any smarter?


Tim O’Reilly at Web 2.0 Expo 2009


Now that Web 2.0 as a concept is five years old and hence a Kindergartner, I got to pondering that question and thinking about whether it’s just starting to make sense, or whether we’re just starting to make sense of it. It strikes me that making sense of something is the opposite — or maybe the necessary outcome — of sensory overload. Making sense out of sensory overload, combined with this year’s conference theme of the “Power of Less,” is all about not only the importance of synthesis of massive amounts of data, but also of stripping back and of starting only with the simplest form:

“These are the times when bureaucracy and waste die by necessity. What’s left are ideas, and the muscle to make them real…this is the year we will choose to work on what matters,” says the conference Web site.

What can you do with ideas and muscle? Everything, it turns out. If I had to choose one key message from the whole conference, it would be this:


  • Start small, with a simple idea – then let it evolve

Sprinkled throughout the conference were stories of this exact theme in subtle and not so subtle ways. Threadless – the crowdsourced t-shirts community – for example, was not started to be a business — it started during the last downturn in 2000 to just be a place to share art. Now it’s a hugely successful, thriving community.

Like Twitter — of course — which started purposefully constrained by the character limits of SMS, “The most successful amazingly complex systems – like the Web – actually start very small, very simple,” O’Reilly said. “The ecosystem adds the value.”

The early search-engine infants of Web 2.0 “just stuck everything in their mouth and said ‘what is this thing?’,” O’Reilly continued. Then in 1998 when Google was launched, the “baby was getting more complex.” Not just because the data had grown — indexing to 25,000 pages — but that so had its synthesis. “Google figured out a way to extract additional meaning from these pages.” Then he showed a picture of a Google mobile app on the iPhone, talking about how search has evolved in its latest generation to have listened in to all of this aggregate data and learned to exploit device as sensor in many ways.

“A computer can recognize and interpret what it sees” in ways an infant tries to but can’t just by sticking it into its mouth — and what’s more — “Meaning doesn’t HAVE to be formalized,” he offered, citing the meaning in energy monitoring data we’re gathering as incredibly powerful. “We cast information shadows on the Web & sometimes there is no global identifier – but that doesn’t mean we can’t make sense of them.”  In Tim O’Reilly’s vision of the future, applications are built on a grid of inter-connected  sensors throughout the world that “pay attention.” “Pay attention,” he urged us.

Yet if Web 2.0-as-Kindergartner still has one thing in common with infancy, it’s information overload. We have nothing if not access to more and more (and more) information, from real-time microblogs to official government data sources, and the data just keeps coming. We could think of data as the foundation for community itself, since “communities form around ‘things’ – seeding a site with a lot of interesting data (even if peripheral) makes contribution more likely,” said Metaweb’s Toby Segaran. “Web sites are simply made so much better by surfacing data.” But are we getting better at interpreting that data?

Similarly, I mightily Twittered my way through a busy schedule, submitting the Web to an onslaught of my own raw data.  Now that the data has had time to gel, I’ve worked on a synthesis around how the Web has “come to its senses” — that is, has learned through an onslaught of data via the devices and interfaces through which it has sucked in all this data — its senses, as it were. I break these senses into the following five key themes in the series I’m introducing today:

I hope you’ll join me for all five future installments right here on the SDN.

A couple of general remarks about the Expo before I leave you to wait for my first installment:  Sure, the house was not as packed as in previous years, but the consensus seems to be that enthusiasm was high. I found most sessions I attended really fascinating, and was relieved at the energy (still) around. Likewise, Duncan Davidson – conference photographer – put together a great anthology of keynote enthusiasm – for which those of us in the audience with only lousy cameraphones are especially grateful.

The usual suspects were present and presenting — including Microsoft, Adobe, eBay, Nokia, Jive, Salesforce, Google, and even SAP had a session, thanks to imagineering luminary Denis Browne. In fact, I was happy to meet more people from SAP than ever before at the Web 2 conferences — including Linda Bortolus, Mike Tschudy, Margot Heiligman, Christina Miller, Rebecca Sowards-Emmerd, and Peter Auditore.

Omnipresent but not explicitly called out in my series are the themes involving the Cloud and sustainability, and Microsoft and the cloud (vs the desktop or the device).  More present than I remember from before was the art world — Etsy, Threadless, Jen Bekman’s 20×200, Rhode Island School of Design, local storytelling talent Heather Gold  — along with the big new standout: the “Government 2.0” theme. In combination with a prominent local theme, I felt a really compelling story around local community empowerment brewing.

But back to this one:

If WE create the meaning in all of these cases: we provide the combined sensory overload via the personal, mobile, local, governing, and community components that matter — then the answer to Tim O’Reilly’s question “Is the Web getting any smarter?” depends entirely on us. No matter how we advance technologically, no technology can yet replicate something as elegant and simple yet as unfathomably complex as the organic embryo.

Yet the infant can’t grow up alone. We’re inextricably linked via community — online or offline — and together we in the end decide our fate.

Stay tuned for the first in the series shortly, in which I kick off with Web 2.0 Expo 2009 – Part 1: Sense of self

If you can’t wait till then and want more Web 2.0 Expo coverage check out these links:

You must be Logged on to comment or reply to a post.
  • This resonates with many of us watching and cheering from the sidelines as folks like Darren Hague and Nigel James create and attend local events such as the SAP Inside track in London which Nigel writes about  here.
    But the theme of Government 2.0 particularly resonates well with me (ex-Kibbutz community dweller that I am) and I have been reading a good deal about and by Umair Haque lately.  I found his ideas particularly relevant to the way community evolves and perhaps localization is a new form of the new new governance.
    He writes:
    “Bigness of purpose is what separates 20th century and 21st century organizations: yesterday, we built huge corporations to do tiny, incremental things – tomorrow, we must build small organizations that can do tremendously massive things.
    And to do that, you must strive to change the world radically for the better – and always believe that yes, you can. You must maximize, stretch, and utterly explode your sense of purpose.”
    So let’s add an important 6th sense to your excellent list.  The sense of purpose.  Without that all is meaningless.

    By the way I think Brian Bernard (one of the content strategist from SCN) was also in attendance. Wonder if he picked up on these senses as well.

    • “Sense of Purpose” — that is a great add, Marilyn!  thanks for turning me on to nigel’s post too — i’d like to see a writeup of how it went.

      the “local” and the “gov20” themes taken together are really drumming up a lot of enthusiasm. can’t wait till i publish those pieces – people are really doing incredible innovations on all of this newly open data.

      i like the Hague stuff too — “Barack Obama is one of the most radical management innovators in the world today.” — in one of Obama’s books i was especially struck by his beginnings as a community organizer — kind of like you, eh marilyn? community organizer!  and you’re right, it all happens exactly *because* of a sense of purpose.

      i hope you stay tuned for the rest of the series — there will be six in total (numbers 0-5 — i know… confusing)