Death of a meme?

This morning’s Observer column.

Perhaps it was the spurious precision of the headline that caught my eye. “Web 2.0 will end on October 1 2012”, it said. The idea of a meme – an infectious idea – having a definite termination point was peculiar enough; but a meme as nebulous as Web 2.0?

Of course the phrase had become ubiquitous in PR-speak over the past few years. It seemed that the press release for every self-respecting online product or service had to have it somewhere in the text. But to ask the authors of these documents to explain what they meant by Web 2.0 was to risk accusations of mental cruelty, for they generally knew not whereof they spoke. (In that respect, it was like asking News International executives about “ethics”.) Many seemed to regard it simply as a synonym for “cool” or “the latest thing”. In that respect, Web 2.0 resembles many other technical terms – think “laser”, “turbo” and the prefix “i” – which have been co-opted by the hucksters of their days.

The prediction of Web 2.0’s demise was made by Christopher Mims, a technology commentator who writes for the MIT journal Technology Review…

Underwater news

This must be one of the most innovative things ever to appear on the Foreign Office Website — an interactive map showing some of the possible impacts of a global temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsius. The yellow line shows where the new “shoreline” would be.

It’s done by using layers in Google Earth. Neat, eh?

Open data and the live tube map

This morning’s Observer column.

For me, the most arresting image of the week was not the photograph of General Stanley McChrystal, looking drawn and ascetic in combat fatigues, en route to his dismissal by his commander-in-chief, but a map of central London showing the underground system. On each line can be seen little yellow blobs. Blink and you discover that each blob has moved a fraction. You can see it for yourself at

The yellow blobs are, of course, tube trains. The fact that they're moving across the map indicates that this is, as near as dammit, real-time information about their positions on the network. And it's public data: you can sit at your computer in San Francisco or Accra and know how the trains on the Central line are doing just now.

How you react to this provides a litmus test for determining where you are on the technology spectrum…

The ‘Web Squared’ Era

Web 2.0, the name we gave this phenomenon in 2004 when we named our new conference, turns five on Oct. 5 (the anniversary of the first Web 2.0 Summit). In our ongoing quest to understand where technology is taking us, the milestone serves as an opportunity not so much to look back but to examine the landscape ahead. Whereas the advent of Web 2.0 marked a profound shift in the meaning of the Web, this next phase is less a new direction than an exploration of what becomes possible when the building blocks of Web 2.0 (such as participation, collective intelligence and so on) increase by orders of magnitude.

We call this step Web Squared.

— Tim O’Reilly, writing in

Don’t put your faith in the Cloud

Typically thoughtful post by Dave Winer.

I’m worried about the web.

We pour so much passion into dynamic web apps hosted by companies we know very little about. We do it without retaining a copy of our data. We have no idea how much it costs them to keep hosting what we create, so even if they’re public companies, it’s very hard to form an opinion of how likely they are to continue hosting our work.

A few weeks ago an entrepreneur said to my face that he was the one who made the money and I was the one who worked for free. My chin dropped. I knew most if not all of them secretly believed this, but I had never heard one say it out loud.

I know others who told me their business model was to patent my work.

Shaking my head. This can’t work.

This system is terrible. It’s a bubble, like the real estate bubble. It’s going to burst, and when it does, it will take a lot of our history with it.

But not this blog post if I have any say about it. It’s stored as a static file on a Windows XP server running Apache. It could just as easily be stored on a Linux machine running anything. Or even an iPod or iPhone. Text files are the ultimate in stability. The same text file you could read on a mainframe 40 years ago could be read on a netbook today. ‘

I’ll post a link to this piece on Twitter, that probably won’t last very long. But — the backup I’m making of it is being stored as a static text file on Apache. So it may well be around for a while.

I’m really obsessed with creating a historic record. I want to feel that our writing has a future. I also don’t want to work for people who are as openly greedy as the typical entrepreneur of 2009.

Yep. Mine is backed up too on a local machine or two. (It’s only about 20MB and therefore trivial to do. Instructions for hosted blogs can be found here. If you want to back up your own WordPress installations go to ../wp-admin/export.php and click on ‘Download Export File’.) Likewise I have copies on several local drives of all the photographs I’ve ever posted to Flickr. And all of my Google docs.

How about you?

What Bruce Sterling Actually Said About Web 2.0

Terrific rant. Sample:

Web 2.0 theory is a web. It’s not philosophy, it’s not ideology like a political platform, it’s not even a set of esthetic tenets like an art movement. The diagram for Web 2.0 is a little model network. You can mash up all the bubbles to the other bubbles. They carry out subroutines on one another. You can flowchart it if you want. There’s a native genius here. I truly admire it.

This chart is five years old now, which is 35 years old in Internet years, but intellectually speaking, it’s still new in the world. It’s alarming how hard it is to say anything constructive about this from any previous cultural framework.

The things that are particularly stimulating and exciting about Web 2.0 are the bits that are just flat-out contradictions in terms. Those are my personal favorites, the utter violations of previous common sense: the frank oxymorons. Like “the web as platform.”

That’s the key Web 2.0 insight: “the web as a platform.”

Okay, “webs” are not “platforms.” I know you’re used to that idea after five years, but consider taking the word “web” out, and using the newer sexy term, “cloud.” “The cloud as platform.” That is insanely great. Right? You can’t build a “platform” on a “cloud!” That is a wildly mixed metaphor! A cloud is insubstantial, while a platform is a solid foundation! The platform falls through the cloud and is smashed to earth like a plummeting stock price!

Worth reading in full.

Google Wave: the gist

Here’s a useful outline of the main features of Google Wave. In essence it’s “a real-time communication platform” which “combines aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, web chat, social networking, and project management to build one elegant, in-browser communication client”.

Main features:

  • Real-time: In most instances, you can see what someone else is typing, character-by-character.
  • Embeddability: Waves can be embedded on any blog or website.
  • Applications and Extensions: Just like a FacebookFacebook reviewsFacebook reviews application or an iGoogle gadget, developers can build their own apps within waves. They can be anything from bots to complex real-time games.
  • Wiki functionality: Anything written within a Google Wave can be edited by anyone else, because all conversations within the platform are shared. Thus, you can correct information, append information, or add your own commentary within a developing conversation.
  • Open source: The Google Wave code will be open source, to foster innovation and adoption amongst developers.
  • Playback: You can playback any part of the wave to see what was said.
  • Natural language: Google Wave can autocorrect your spelling, even going as far as knowing the difference between similar words, like “been” and “bean.” It can also auto-translate on-the-fly.
  • Drag-and-drop file sharing: No attachments; just drag your file and drop it inside Google Wave and everyone will have access.

    While these are only a few of the many features of Google Wave, it’s easy to see why people are extremely excited.

  • What Tom Steinberg did next

    This is truly wonderful — from the MySociety man. Currently in private beta, but mainstreaming soon (I hope).

    MySociety has done some amazing stuff in the past. This shows that they’re not flagging.

    Also: Should have mentioned that this work is supported by 4IP, which is headed by Tom Loosemore and has funding some interesting work. 4IP has an iPhone App deveopment fund aimed at stimulating the development of socially-useful Apps.

    The downside of URL shorteners

    Very thoughtful post by Joshua Schachter.

    The worst problem is that shortening services add another layer of indirection to an already creaky system. A regular hyperlink implicates a browser, its DNS resolver, the publisher’s DNS server, and the publisher’s website. With a shortening service, you’re adding something that acts like a third DNS resolver, except one that is assembled out of unvetted PHP and MySQL, without the benevolent oversight of luminaries like Dan Kaminsky and St. Postel.

    There are three other parties in the ecosystem of a link: the publisher (the site the link points to), the transit (places where that shortened link is used, such as Twitter or Typepad), and the clicker (the person who ultimately follows the shortened links). Each is harmed to some extent by URL shortening.

    The transit’s main problem with these systems is that a link that used to be transparent is now opaque and requires a lookup operation. From my past experience with Delicious, I know that a huge proportion of shortened links are just a disguise for spam, so examining the expanded URL is a necessary step. The transit has to hit every shortened link to get at the underlying link and hope that it doesn’t get throttled. It also has to log and store every redirect it ever sees.

    The publisher’s problems are milder. It’s possible that the redirection steps steals search juice — I don’t know how search engines handle these kinds of redirects. It certainly makes it harder to track down links to the published site if the publisher ever needs to reach their authors. And the publisher may lose information about the source of its traffic.

    But the biggest burden falls on the clicker, the person who follows the links. The extra layer of indirection slows down browsing with additional DNS lookups and server hits. A new and potentially unreliable middleman now sits between the link and its destination. And the long-term archivability of the hyperlink now depends on the health of a third party…

    I hadn’t thought of this, and indeed have been cheerfully using without thinking about the consequences. And then I came on this perceptive post by Om Malik on the business model underpinning

    Yesterday, New York-based startup incubator Betaworks raised $2 million in funding for its URL-shortener project,, and spun it out as an independent company. The funding raised some eyebrows, with some speculating if, one of the dozens of link-shortening services, was worth a rumored $8 million. I fall in the camp of those who think is worth the money.

    Here’s why: The most important aspect of is not that it can shorten URLs. Instead its real prowess lies in its ability to track the click-performance of those URLs, and conversations around those links. It doesn’t matter where those URLs are embedded — Facebook, Twitter, blogs, email, instant messages or SMS messages — a click is a click and counts it, in real time. Last week alone, nearly 25 million of these URLs were clicked.

    By clicking on these URLs, people are essentially voting on the stories behind these links. Now if collated all these links and ranked them by popularity, you would have a visualization of the top stories across the web. In other words, it would be a highly distributed form of, the social news service that depends on people submitting and voting for stories from across the web. Don’t be surprised if formally launches such as an offering real soon. This will help them monetize their service via advertising…