Of mutual masturbation

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FJ de Kermadec

FJ de Kermadec
Oct. 01, 2005 09:56 AM
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Like many Internet users, I rely on Google for part of my content lookups, I do frequent trips to Wikipedia, I own a Flickr and a Del.icio.us account. I have believed in web-based desktop applications since their earliest days and have an equal interest in their counterpart, the online service world. In fact, some could say I'm the poster child for Web 2.0: I never really knew the Web 1.0, except for a brief encounter with the thing during my Mac OS 9 days, and I have always taken things such as live bookmarks, feeds and dynamic sites for granted.

Somehow, however, I just cannot buy that there is such a thing about a Web 2.0 and, the more I read about it, the less I am convinced. Sure, new technologies such as AJAX are bringing a new dimension to websites, on-demand content is slowly shaping up to be a reality thanks to RSS feeds, blogging software allows for a true discussion between users. Google maps is phenomenal, Flickr rocks and Wikipedia rules.

I understand that temptation is big to write about a Web 2.0 that we, the geeks of today, have created. The founding fathers created the Web 1.0 and did something great but only us, the pioneers of today, have found an answer, right? Not quite, I'm afraid.

When the web started, there was this idea it would allow users to communicate, exchange ideas, collaborate. And it worked: people had mailing lists, Usenet to share ideas on, send notes to their pals. Even rudimentary UNIX implementations have a "talk" program that is the ancestor of live chat. The concept of an "Online library", of a "Discussion platform", existed long before CSS, RSS, XML and other 3-letters acronyms saw the light of day. Mailing lists used to work smoothly and allowed for the discussion of various topics, from many places. Actually, if you jump to any computer out there, I bet you you'll find some mail program, even if it's "mail", Pine or something equally un-sexy. And this program will allow you to communicate with peers.

The web of today is full of fancy technologies, forums, chatrooms, trackbacks. It is also full of SPAM, viruses, crackers, it forces us to update our operating systems and sites backend every couple weeks. And we all sit around, considering it normal, praising ourselves for facilitating exchange. Google maps may rock because of its APIs, its innovative use of JavaScript scrolling and its unbelievably clear pinpointing capabilities but it is a mapping system. It sure is a world ahead of Mappy (or an equally "Web 1.0" service) but it is a mapping system. Blogs do make publishing sites easier and force users into a structure that make the ramblings of even the sloppiest of people exploitable. It is nice but it is an evolution of home pages. Entire sites are dedicated to making forms nicer with AJAX, forms, the one element of the web we all wanted dead a while ago!

There is a new web, a better, smoother, more accessible web and we see it shaping up. That is a fact and I'm certainly not denying it. The people behind the sites I just named made a tremendous job and deserve congratulations on the development of something great. But did they change the web? No. They built on some sound technologies, they maybe made exchanging more glamorous, more accessible to a few select users.

While we the geeks praise the Google APIs and the millionth implementation of a cool Google hack, the advent of RSS streams on Flickr and the power of Ruby, the majority of planet earth is still loading "Google.com" in Internet Explorer and typing queries such as "Error DLL fix bug", hoping to get an answer. People wanting directions may land on Google maps (if it were even clear such a service existed from the Google home page, which it is not), type in an address and print the page to take it with them in their car.

What about communication? What about helping these people? What about the Internet as a platform for progress? Is Web 2.0 about APIs and Acronyms? About facilitating communication between people who know which browser to use (Firefox, of course), who know what a "permalink" stands for? If Flickr is so easy to use, how come my grandmother is not using it? This woman was born before the television era and yet she owns one. She even owns a VCR, which definitely weren't invented when she grew up. The woman is not stupid and she has embraced technology. So, why would her using Flickr be that much of a stretch?

If Google is so accurate, how come typing "Error DLL fix bug" brings me first to a blog entry and not to the Microsoft support site? Of course, I know why, I know how Google works but most people don't. Most people will go to Google, see the first link has no meaning to them (as I write this blog, the first returned result has little to no chances to help anyone looking into fixing a faulty Windows installation) and will quit there.

People still think Macworld is published by Apple. How can we expect them to understand the structure of a wiki?

The users I am talking to still think an e-mail inbox is tied to a computer, like a postal address is tied to a building, ask me whether "I can query the system" when they need to look up a price on Amazon and quit every software they use before opening a second application. Don't laugh, these people have PhDs and are trying very hard to wrap their minds around computers.

The web is growing but the painful truth is that most users are lost in it. And no amount of RSS or Ruby on Rails, no matter how great they are, are going to change that. Our mission as Web Pioneers is to bring these people on board, make the technology accessible to them. The more we "go forward", the more people we lose along the track, leaving them confused and disoriented.

Right now, Web 2.0 looks like an interactive, collaborative, responsive, user friendly space. Only it lacks users.

FJ de Kermadec is an author, stylist and entrepreneur in Paris, France.