Note: A presentation on this topic is available on SlideRocket — “Web 2.0 and Social Media in Context”
The selection of “You” in 2006 and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010 as TIME’s Person of the Year provides two time markers in the “Web 2.0” or “social media” era (my earlier post: “TIME’s Person of the Year, 2006 and 2010“). Earlier on, the topic of discussion was all about Web 2.0; more recently, it is mostly about social media. Do not ask for a definition of these terms – Web 2.0 or social media (an attempt to define the latter term can be found in an earlier post: “Social Media: More ‘Social’ than ‘Media’“. Neither term is easy to define. Few business professionals have time to spare on such a definition. Ask someone for examples of the tools (i.e., applications and services) closely associated with either Web 2.0 or social media and you would get very much the same answers: blogs, RSS, tweets, online social networks, and so forth. If the two terms refer to the same phenomenon, then why do we need both? But if they do not, then how do they differ?
The Forces Behind
The terms Web 2.0 and social media essentially refer to the same phenomenon: the technological, social and economic transformations associated with a new era in the evolution of the Web. Initially, these transformations caught the attention of software developers, system architects and other information technology (IT) professionals. The term Web 2.0, used widely earlier on, tried to capture the transformation of the Web and eventually the society. These transformations are quite fundamental and lie mostly underneath the surface or behind the scene. They, hence the term Web 2.0, attracted little attention beyond IT professionals and some business strategists.
Transformed by Apps
At the heart of Web 2.0 transformations is the new system architecture centering on the lightweight programming model. This model is intended on delivering interoperability for easy deployment of applications over the network, independent of operating systems and hardware devices. Lightweight applications, often taking the form of Web services, are built as reusable, self-contained, function-specific software components that can be easily selected, extended and combined into new applications known as mashups. An example is HousingMaps, which meshes Google Maps data with home listings from Craig’s List to offer users the convenience of searching for rental and for-sale properties and getting their map locations on the same website. Such applications are highly modular and hence allow complementary services and functionalities to be added easily.
Modular application architecture introduces new sets of design possibilities and thereby creates opportunities for entry by new developers, including individuals with limited technological and financial resources. It means products do not create much value on their own as stand-alone elements. Rather, they depend on complementary products and services from other producers or providers to be useful. Think of Apple and the tens of thousands of iPhone and iPad apps available on AppStore plus all the entertainment on iTunes. The value of the iPad and iPhone lie as much in these apps and content as in the hardware (“There’s an app for that”). These devices plus iTunes and AppStore function as a platform that brings together several groups from different sides of the market – app developers, content publishers and users – and facilitate their transactions. For competitors, they need not only match Apple hardware quality and features but also build a comparable ecosystem of app developers and content publishers. Look at Facebook. It was trailing behind MySpace until it decided in May 2007 to let independent software developers to build apps for Facebook (and earn a share of advertising revenues). As more such apps become available, users can do more things (e.g., sharing shopping info with friends) and hence spend more time on Facebook, making it an attractive platform for advertisers. Meanwhile, MySpace and other online social networks did not respond to Facebook in the timely fashion; when they did, they did so in a half-heartedly manner through Google’s app development platform OpenSocial. By then many app developers had joined the Facebook platform and would be reluctant to spare their limited resources on another platform. Like Apple, Facebook offers much more value as a platform, bringing together multiple sides of a market, than a standalone product or service.
Propelled by Network Effect
To any side of a market (group of market participants), the value of a platform depends of its ability to attract participants on the other side or sides. To users, the value of Apple iPhone and iPad or that of Facebook social network depends on their ability to attract more app developers and content publishers or advertisers, respectively; to developers and publishers/advertisers, that value depends on the number of users buying Apple devices or signing up for Facebook. This is known as the network effect, which creates a virtuous cycle that can drastically reshape market landscape (an earlier post: “What do Amazon, Apple, eBay,Facebook and Saleforce have in common?“).
The presence of network effect is not uniquely Web 2.0, but its magnitude is. Modular application architecture has lowers the entry barriers for complementary service providers so drastically that a visionary platform operator like Apple or Facebook can mobilize enormous pools of developer resources and quickly scale up its offerings to offer so compelling value to users. Three years after its launch, Facebook development platform has attracted 2.5 million developers offering more than 75,000 apps; 20 millions apps are installed by Facebook users every day. As more apps become available, users can do more things (e.g., sharing shopping info with friends) on Facebook, they spend more time there instead of searching on Google or going somewhere else. As users spend more time on Facebook, advertisers become attracted. As more advertisers spend their ad dollars on Facebook, more app developers become interested; as more apps become available, users spend more time on Facebook… The virtuous circle spirals upward. Facebook user population has reached 500 millions, ten folds what it was in Oct 2007.
The Public Face
While some transformational effects of the new Web era (e.g., modular application architecture) lie beneath the surface, others (e.g., the proliferation of online social networks – OSNs) are much more visible. The term “social media” captures the essence of the latter transformations .
Empowered by UGC
One highly visible transformation of the Web is the meteoric rise of user-generated content (UGC). Behind that rise is the modular application architecture, which “shifts computing to the edge of network, and empowers individual users with relative low technological sophistication in using the web to manifest their creativity, engage in social interaction, contribute their expertise, share content, collectively build new tools, disseminate information and propaganda, and assimilate collective bargaining power” (Parameswaran and Whinston, 2007). That shift, in the form of UGC, has transformed the Web from a ‘publishing’ to a ‘participatory’ medium. In the publishing Web era, institutions (e.g., corporate establishments, website operators, marketers and publishers) provided virtually all the content on the web. Users were primarily passive consumers of such content. In the participatory web era, users can now be active creators, not just passive consumers, of content on a scale never seen before, e.g., creating Facebook profiles, building Second Life avatars, recording podcasts, and blogging about political candidates, social causes or consumption experience. They have wrested power from the few (e.g., newspaper editors, broadcasters, marketers and advertisers). In the process, they have not only changed the world but also the way the world changes. “For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game”, Internet users (“You” included) were selected as TIME’s 2006 Person of the Year.
What drives the participatory Web is not simply user participation per se, but an implicit “architecture of participation”. More than just facilitating user participation, it enables user interactions and collaborations such that services improve and content get richer as more users participate (O’Reilly, 2005). As more users collaborate on a Wikipedia entry, for instance, errors and intentionally bias can be detected and corrected more rapidly. Passive participation can contribute as well. Most users, for instance, bookmark web pages and tag content on social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Furl for personal use rather for the collective benefits. Social bookmarking still can benefit other users by functioning as a recommendation system even without explicitly providing recommendations; tagging data can be automatically aggregated into useful information, e.g., folksonomy in form of a tag cloud.
Propelled by Social Interactions
UGC is not just about content. It is also about connectivity and collaboration on a massive scale. It depends on some media (means of mass communication, e.g., blogs, wikis and tweets) to deliver, aggregate, collaborate and/or improve on the content (e.g., entertainment, viewpoints, information, ratings, bookmarks, etc.). The more users it reaches or brings in, the more powerful or useful it gets. Blog posts by themselves are “isolated” content pieces. Commenting and hyperlinking can turn these isolated posts into running conversations and passionate debates or even start a social movement. Wiki entries are not content pieces by individuals but a product of the collective intelligence and collaborative efforts of crowds. User profiles on online social networks help people find and connect with each other. Web 2.0-era media are therefore social media.
Connectivity and collaboration constitute the “social” part of social media. This social dimension distinguishes UGC (contributed by the mass) from the commercially developed content (controlled by the few) in the Web 1.0 era. It shifts the balance to power from the center (e.g., advertisers and website operators) to the edge (e.g., consumers and web users). Connectivity offers content a mechanism for wider reach, or in other words, the “multiplier” effect that makes UGC so powerful. Collaboration ensures content its richness. Content constitutes the “media” part of social media. It provides the “substance”; in its void, there is nothing to converse about, nothing to share with each other, and nothing to collaborate on. Content transforms (plain) connectivity into (rich) interactions.
Social interactions follow primarily a many-to-many pattern among interconnected users, in place of a one-to-many broadcasting pattern that was well orchestrated by institutions (e.g., companies) in the past. They entail various levels of user engagement, ranging from passive usage (e.g., tagging content or joining groups) and limited engagement (e.g., rating and voting on content or commenting on blog posts) to active contributions (e.g., writing blogs or uploading photos and videos) and deep involvement (e.g., networking with others or running online communities). Depending on the level of engagement, social interactions can support sharing, facilitate conversations, engage users and help build community. They deliver a level of “stickiness” that has been elusive to website operators, advertisers and content publishers with faith in the “content is king” mantra. Commercially developed content, lacking social interactions and hence user engagement, often fails to attract visitors and keep them coming back (an earlier post: “Is [Commercially Developed] Content King?“). Social interactions, on the other hand, engage users, nurture relationships and build brand loyalty. The resulting “customer lock-in” (or stickiness) helps the firm fortify its customer base or even expand it with “word of mouth” and viral messages, and thus allow the firm to successfully leverage the network effect.
The terms Web 2.0 and social media essentially refer to the same set of tools and transformational changes taking place in the new Web era. Web 2.0 focuses on the forces behind the scene (i.e., modular application architecture and network effect) that are of interest to system architect, application developers and IT professionals. Social media, on the other hand, represent the public face of the new Web (e.g., UGC and social interactions) that captivates marketers, advertisers and PR professionals.