The social and collaboration part of Web 2.0 mostly revolves around the concepts of social networking, user-generated content, and the long tail.
Social networking is the idea that people can meet and talk and organise their social lives using the Web instead of, or in addition to, more traditional methods such as talking face to face, or on the phone. It’s an extension of usenet and bulletin boards that’s based on the web, with more features. Social networking sites tend to go through phases; everyone was into Orkut for a while, now it’s MySpace and Facebook, or Ravelry if you’re a knitter. Features and focus vary, but the idea of creating an online community remains the same.
User-generated content is the idea that non-professionals can contribute content. I don’t like the term much, so I’m going to use the variant user-created content to show that it’s a creative process, not just some machine generating content. The concept of user-created content isn’t new; the Web was first designed as a collaboration platform, the read/write web. In practical terms, however, it was difficult for those without lots of technical knowledge to publish on the web. All these things like blogging and commenting that are now relatively easy for people to do weren’t, just a few years ago. Previously only a few people could make their opinions widely known, in practice professionals with access. Don’t forget that one of the reasons Benjamin Franklin could make such a difference in the early years of the US was that he owned a printing press!
Now basically everyone with access to the internet who’s interested can publish their opinions, their photos, or their videos to their friends and the world. It’s easier to keep in touch with friends far away, or find out what life’s like in some far-off place, or contribute a snippet of knowledge to Wikipedia. Some of these publishers (bloggers, commenters, photo-uploaders) have a large audience, many have an audience that is large enough for them (which may mean just the family, or just themselves, or a few hundred strangers).
One of the downsides of this “democratization”, as it’s sometimes called, is that it can be hard to find the really good information or entertainment – you hear a lot about “cult of the amateur” and “90% of everything is crap”. Some of this is coming from those who are threatened by the availability of information from other sources: journalists and newspapers in particular are right to be scared, since they’re now going to have to work harder to convince the world that they add value. Whether the entertainment created by amateurs that’s available on the web is better than that created by the mass entertainment industry depends on your view of how good a job the latter does at finding and nurturing talent.
The long tail is another aspect of Web 2.0 that you hear about a lot. Booksellers are a good example of how the long tail works: Whereas your average bookseller, even Waterstones or Blackwell’s, has maybe a few thousand or a few tens of thousands of books, an internet seller can have millions. Although the comparison is perhaps not fair, since an internet bookseller, just like your local bookseller, can order from the publisher and will usually count that as being part of the inventory for bragging reasons. And, of course, you can always go to Powell’s Books in Portland, which claims to have over a million books physically in their store. It’s big; they hand out maps at the entrance so you don’t get lost.
The long-tail aspect is this: It turns out that most of the revenue doesn’t come from selling the Harry Potter books, big sellers though those are, it’s from selling those books that aren’t individually big sellers. The total volume of sales in those niche areas is larger than the best-sellers. Other companies that make good use of this of course are eBay, where you can buy things that you can’t get downtown, uptown, or potentially anywhere in your town, and the video rental company Netflix, which rents out some 35,000 titles in the one million videos it sends out each day.
And, of course, the long tail applies to blogs and other online sites. In other words, no matter how specialised your blog is, someone out there in blog-reading land is likely to find it interesting. The big problem is how those potential readers find out about it.