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Web 2.0, mashups and social networking - what is it all about?

3 different terms - Web 2.0, mashup and social networking, but all intertwined in the brave new Internet, the so-called second phase of the evolution of the online world. But what does it all mean? 

Some companies have made the claim of using "Web 2.0" as a marketing strategy, but it seems in many cases it may be unfounded. 

Do you really need to have a "New! Improved by Web 2.0" slogan on your site in order to survive and thrive? Not really, it's somewhat of a buzzword, but it's good to understand what this jargon means and to begin thinking about how your site can evolve to take advantage of the direction the web is heading in. 

Long gone is the the concept of the Internet geek - the loner in a darkened room engaged in uber-technical pursuits. The web is cool with teens, it's a vital tool and recreation area for Generation X, the web is happening with senior citizens and as a result, it's becoming increasingly user driven rather than tech-geek dictated.

What is Web 2.0?

The roots of the term "Web 2.0" were in a conference brainstorming session between O'Reilly and MediaLive International in 2004. It referred to a change of thinking about how the applications of the future should be developed. Even before the term existed, Web 2.0 type applications were already around; e.g. blogging software. The brainstorming session sought to identify the common elements of these popular applications and services as a model for the future.

Web 2.0 applications and services have at least several of the following elements common:

- fresh, useful data is the core
- the ability for other parties to manipulate that data
- "living" applications that can be easily adapted
- harnessing the collective experience
- the web as a platform, independent of user platform
- primary focus of participation, rather than publishing
- trusting of users to provide reliable content

Other examples of applications and services with strong Web 2.0 influences are bookmark sharing, Google AdSense, RSS web feeds, Wikipedia and the thousands of mashups currently in existence. Personally, I see forums as a Web 2.0 type of application, but I don't see them recognized as such.

The very interesting point I find about the whole Web 2.0 movement is that in one particular aspect, it's really nothing new. In the 70's the technology boffins were desperately trying to get away from the mainframe/dumb terminal infrastructure and in some ways, we're heading back to that - just with hugely increased flexibility.

For a very much more detailed description of Web 2.0 concepts, something not overly technical, I highly recommend this article by Tim O'Reilly of O’Reilly Media, Inc.

What is a mashup?

The term "mashup" originated in the music industry - it's music that is made up of other songs already released, usually by other artists. I often find myself saying to my daughters that the "new" song they think is so cool is actually the bass line from X artist circa 1974 and the electric guitar riffs from X song originally recorded in 1982. Pah! Modern music, don't get me started ;).  

Anyway, mashups in the web development world are actually very useful things ;). A mashup is usually a web-based application that combines content and functionality from a variety of sources using technologies including RSS and AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript And XML).

Mashups generally don't require a programming degree, hence the rapid uptake of the concept. A company will release an API (Application Programming Interface) which is the interface that allows for external requests to be made to whatever content the company is offering. Instead of it being just a rigid reproduction of information, there is a high degree of interactivity and for the developer/user to manipulate that data - hence its tie in with Web 2.0 concepts.

So, between the API implementation and the user/developer's additional work to manipulate the content for use within another application - that's a mashup; although some purists might argue more than one API needs to be used to qualify for that term. 

Mashups can be very simple or extraordinarily complex; for example, VirtualPlaces is a mashup of APIs provided by Amazon Web Services, Weather.com, Flickr, MSN Search, Feedmap and GeoURL.

If you'd like to start messing around in the world of mashups, there's some very good mashup tutorials here.

What are social networking applications?

There's a huge difference between social networking and social engineering - I've seen a few people get mixed up between the two.

Social engineering is a term related to hacking. It's the process by which a hacker or fraudster elicits information from people in order to get access to their/their company's systems. For example, a hacker may call an employee posing as a senior executive and ask for details relating to a certain client in order to access the profile and create havoc. 

Generally speaking, social networking services relating to the web are where a group of people launch a highly interactive service based on common interests between users and easy to use communications tools to detail and promote those interests to others.

They then invite their friends and colleagues to join and encourage them to also to invite people they know who have similar interests. Introductions are then made between these people that have been invited throughout the various tiers of the process. 

Via common connections these processes connect businesses to consumers, consumers to consumers and businesses to businesses whom otherwise may not have met. It also helps establish a network of credibility - "oh, X knows Y so Y must be ok". If Y is making a recommendation about a product or service, then that single recommendation may wield a great deal of purchasing influence.

A great example of social networking is the hugely popular MySpace.com - an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends and colleagues. A single profile can generate a little "world" of people who have similar interests, with these worlds eventually overlapping with other worlds. It's useful to the user and a marketers dream :). MySpace has really found it's niche in music and band branding - many of the top bands in the world have MySpace pages.

Another pioneer that has become extraordinarily successful is Friendster

From an ecommerce aspect, LinkedIn is a great example, with over 4 million members. I've been a member of LinkedIn for a while and it's very interesting to see who knows whom. Big players such as Google and Adobe have representation in the network, allowing LinkedIn members a route via their network of connections to some of the decision makers within large companies.

The popularity of social networking applications reinforces the validity of the theory of "six degrees of separation"; that is, that any two human beings, regardless of age, color, creed or social status have some sort of connection within five intermediaries. For example:

- I know Fred, who works in the Department of Commerce
- Fred regularly communicates with his boss
- His boss meets with the agency head once a week
- The agency head communicates with one of the President's inner circle
- That person lunches with the President every month to discuss issues.

While I'm based in Australia and have never met the President of the USA, I have "connections" to him, only separated by 5 degrees. Web based social networking applications will probably decrease the number of degrees of separation for millions of people in the years ahead.

The humble blog can also be considered to be a form of social networking application. It invites others to comment on items and the blog itself "pings" another blog when a post is made that relates to the other blog. It's a more insular world, but very effective nonetheless for building large networks. Many bloggers, through the exchange of links and post quoting, build up huge networks - not just of users and subscribers, but of other bloggers.

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What does all this mean for online business?

For those of us who have established online businesses as somewhat of a way to avoid human interaction, I have bad news :). Heavy participation with our audiences is becoming increasingly expected. In the years ahead, it will become more difficult to have a successful, fully automated site where you can take off for a week and ignore what's happening. 

A great example of this is blogging. I've read a few stories where once successful bloggers became a little slack in updating and lost their visitors very, very quickly - forever. Blogging is a powerful tool that can become useless if it isn't kept relatively fresh.

For those who run social networking services such as MySpace, they need to continually have their finger on the pulse of what their users want. Many social networking services will spring up during the years ahead, but I believe relatively few will thrive due to this frenetic pace of adapting to user demands.

Given the availability and relative ease of implementation of mashups, people will also demand more from us smaller players. For example, not so long ago, having a basic map to your premises on your site was a great customer service. In the time ahead, people will want detailed instructions of getting to your premises from wherever they are - street by street, road by road, turn by turn - complete with photos of surrounding buildings and landmarks. 

It appears that thinking too hard is becoming an optional extra for human existence ;) - although, with many of us becoming "specialists" in given areas in our lives and with data overload becoming a real problem, perhaps we just don't have the headspace for thinking about "menial" issues any more.

General user communities will also become increasingly important - using forums as a marketing tool only or just for traffic generation will fall by the wayside in many cases - it's already very tough to make a forum succeed. Clients and visitors want to interact with each other, but also with you and the wider related communities. It's all very tribal :).

Getting into Web 2.0 - the easy way

There's no need to start scurrying to implement mashup applications right away - simple as they are in many cases, there's still a learning curve and developing your own API's is a more complex task.

For starters, I suggest if you have content you wish for others to reproduce, while offering articles directly from your site is a great way to go, you may want to consider automating this somewhat using an RSS web feed - it's pretty simple to implement. 

In doing this, you may also be able to get broader exposure by providing data for mashup developers to include in their applications and for industry commentators and journalists to have an easy way to keep up to date with what's happening in your sector. It doesn't have to be just articles you use. You may have a catalog with items containing technical specifications which could be useful to other sites. Just be sure that there's an easy way for the person viewing the content on the other site to make their way back to you.

Invite developers to comment on your feeds; ask them how it should evolve. You may find some of them wanting to collaborate with you in improving your feeds in a way that will benefit you as much as them.

If your site doesn't offer content for reproduction, I suggest starting a blog or a forum and implementing an RSS feed around that. It's just a matter of posting news items from your industry, but not just repeated in a parrot-type fashion; inject your own spin and opinions and relate it back to your own business if possible. Encouraging comment is also important, it keeps a topic alive and interesting.

If time allows, get involved with other social networking services; use them as a launching pad for getting the word out about your company - just as many bands are doing via MySpace.

While the new "connected" generation presents us all with many challenges, especially those of us whom are smaller players; there's some great opportunities as well. The popularity of Web 2.0, mashups and social networking applications will allow for viral marketing in ways and with reach not possible before. 

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

Copyright information.... This article is not available for reproduction without explicit written permission from Michael Bloch and Taming the Beast.net

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