Monday, September 4, 2006

Web 2.0, Users 0

The Internet is just a world passing around notes in a classroom. ~Jon Stewart

A movie came out recently entitled “Snakes on a Plane” which is about a bunch of snakes getting loose on – you guessed it – an airplane. Now this is pretty standard B-picture fare, but there was a lot of talk around the media about this flick before it was released The talk was not about the plot or the actor's performances; it was about the Internet and how “Snakes” was going to be a blockbuster because of all the Web buzz.

There is a term called “viral marketing”, which is a fancy way of saying “word of mouth.” Word-of-mouth advertising has long been a part of making small, independent movies successful, as well as creating cult classics like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” But this time, the word-of-mouth was on the World Wide Web, and, by golly, you know that means big money.

Well, surprise, surprise, it hasn't worked out that way. Oh, the film had a respectable start, making about half its cost the first weekend, but the “smart money” was saying that the film would score very big because of all that free publicity on the Internet. Well, listen up, “smart money”: The Internet isn't what you seem to think it is.

Perhaps you've heard about a Japanese video game that had been translated into English very badly. The most quoted line from the game was, “All your base are belong to us.” This tortured translation became so common on the 'Net that it became a cliché, fit for use only by newbies. “Snakes on a Plane” got to be the same sort of joke, either via terrible plays on words (grilling T-bones are “Steaks on a Flame”; I didn't say they were good jokes) or poking fun at Samuel L. Jackson's constant potty mouth.

Like most things about the 'Net, the real impact is overrated. It's great for shopping, although it's also an excellent way to get ripped off, either through fraudulent vendors or having your payment info stolen. It's a huge source of information, if you know how to use a search engine like Google effectively, but it also contains sources of misinformation like Wikipedia. It has many news sources, but the pressure to put up content has even reputable sources publishing stories that are ill-founded or outright false.

The 'Net is also a great mode of communication, if you're fortunate enough to have a high-speed connection. Why, you can work from home, if your ISP allows VPN connections; if they don't, well, you can't. You have e-mail, which is wonderful if you can sort out the legitimate mail from the tons of garbage you have brought down on your head by registering your e-mail address every time a web site asks for it. Oh, and, as a bonus, you get the added feature of having viruses and trojans e-mailed directly to you by friends whose PC's have been compromised.

So, the Internet is both useful and dangerous, just like a chef's knife, and, as with a chef's knife, you can get hurt if you're not careful. Also, there are things to which the Internet is suited and things for which it may not be so well suited, just like using that chef's knife as a screwdriver is not necessarily such a good idea.

Which brings us to Web 2.0, whatever that is.

For months now, the IT intelligentsia have been touting Web 2.0. It's going to walk your dog, weed your garden, and change the oil on your car. That is, it'll do all sorts of wonderful things, as soon as someone figures out what it is. While there is all sorts of talk about the coming wonders of Web 2.0, there's a distinct shortage of actual information about what will make it different from Web 1.0.

Oh, there's the customary talk about new means of collaboration, which has been a buzzword since the earliest days of computing. Strangely, with all these supposed tools for collaborating, we seem to be taking longer and having more meetings to get done what we used to accomplish more easily without the tools.

Okay, if it's not collaboration, maybe it's the web applications. Web apps have been bandied about for several years now. Basically, you take a perfectly good application and make it run in a browser. So, instead of a small client running on your local machine, you have to run the client from a server inside your browser, which is a memory hog by itself. The browser version will not have all the features available in the locally run client software. This is called “progress”. This is working so well, that Microsoft is changing the interface of their wildly popular WSUS application from a web-based front-end to a traditional management console.

(I wasn't being sarcastic. WSUS is used by local networks to automate the process of applying MS security patches. It's free and is, quite possibly, the best application MS has ever put out. However, its web front end had severe management limitations, so the console is back.)

Perhaps it's the hosted web apps, such as Google's calendar and pending spreadsheet and word processor. Well, application hosting has already pretty much faded into the sunset, because, no one has figured out what to do if a backhoe comes along and severs your connection to the Internet. If the backhoe doesn't get you, then you might have to contend with a server failure at the host. Or, best of all, the host could be hacked, and, all your data gets exposed and sold to the highest bidder.

Tim Berniers-Lee invented the Web. Well, he invented the HyperText Transfer Protocol, which you will recognize as the “http” you're always typing into your browser. When Tim Berniers-Lee talks, I listen. And he thinks this whole Web 2.0 thing is “useless jargon.” According to Mr. Berniers-Lee, all that's happening is people are using a bunch of new technology to do precisely what they've been doing right along.

Apparently in an attempt to add some sort of mystique to this Web 2.0 nonsense, a conference is being held. Usually, such shindigs are open events designed to get the word out. This one, though, is by invitation only. In other words, if you aren't a Web 2.0 player, you aren't getting in. Why do I get the feeling that this is a group that's trying to figure out how to make a quick buck before “dot com bust 2.0” occurs?

No matter how hard people try to make the Internet into the be-all and end-all of information processing, it's just another tool. Finding complex ways to do simple things may make the 'Net fancier, but it won't make it better. In fact, just as computers have to be faster just to run modern bloated software as well as our old 8086's could run stuff, the 'Net needs more and more bandwidth just to support the endless advertising that seems to be the hallmark (so far, at least) of Web 2.0.

In the way that a bunch of people mentioning a mediocre flick on the Web will not make it into “Gone With The Wind”, a bunch of new ways of foisting advertising on us does not constitute an improved Web. Besides some of us use ad blockers. We'll probably miss the whole thing.

Not that there'll be much to miss.

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