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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Big Problem with Web 2.0

What’s the problem? The solutions today never seem to do what I want, and I think there are some hard problems that we may be glossing over in all the hype.

Here’s an example of what I want to use Web 2.0 applications for:

I am often researching different topics either personally or as part of a group:
  • For example, I’m researching eLearning 2.0 for articles, presentations and my blog? Who is actually doing stuff with this? What are they finding? What works? What doesn’t?
  • I’m researching content management and Wiki software with a group of people in the office for an upcoming proposal.
  • I’m researching learning object models in concert with a client.
  • I’m researching vacation places with my wife.

What I would want Web 2.0 software to provide is the following:

  • I need to be able to search every document I have, every site/document I’ve viewed or marked in the past. I want these to exist forever so that I don’t have to worry about them. Right now I use desktop search to hit all the documents I’ve got locally. Soon we’ll have a network search to search across all the many project files on the network. And, I’ve been looking at a couple of Web 2.0 applications to find something that will keep all the stuff that I mark out in the world.
  • Of course, I shouldn’t have to think about which search to use in which case. And, I shouldn’t have to worry about where things are located.
  • I also need to be able to control access to the information. I have various groups I belong to. These groups may be very long lived or may come together for very short bursts. While we are operating, we want to be able to work collectively. We want the stuff we share to be automatically available after we are done working together (under my search solution). I need to be able to communicate with these groups at the appropriate speed without need for worrying about how to actually reach them. I shouldn’t have to think about email, IM, phone, SMS, etc. And, if I’ve done it via some kind of text, it should save that correspondence along with the group and project.

With the Web 2.0 Software that exists, I find that I have to fight the different (but seemingly related) models. Blogs are great for the simple creation of information – but there is no sense of groups. Wikis definitely can have groups, but they are not nearly as easy to get setup and going as Blogs. And, of course, all the linking, adding comments, file sharing stuff seems to suggest the use of Social Bookmarking. But this really doesn’t seem to handle the grouping aspects at all.

I think some of this is going to naturally fall away, especially as people like Yahoo start to pull in all these separate pieces.

But there are two problems that I see looming: one is Solo vs. Group; the other is hierarchy, tagging vs. search.

Part of the beauty of Blogs is the incredible ease - you can just create it and go. Literally, this blog took 10 minutes to setup. Blogs are primarily a linear activity (generally with one owner or a small group of owners). Aggregation then becomes the problem. How do you turn all of these separate unrelated linear streams of activity into a meaningful collection. Do you just search? Do you enforce structure? Sure there’s software (even myYahoo) that can aggregate the RSS feeds, right? But it doesn’t really pull them together in any meaningful way. And, people can go on their merry way saying what they want in their Blog without every really participating in the aggregated group. They may even be unaware of other blogs talking about the same topic. It becomes the responsibility of the reader to make sense of the many streams of information. And, there is inherently little structure.

Wikis come at it from an explicit group standpoint. I think this group modeling is very important and some of the Wiki tools have it right where you can define groups and then define what they can do and what they see. Of course, there’s still mental overhead to set this up for each group. And, there’s even more overhead in thinking about how the group will work together. A wiki generally also forces you to face the question of how do you organize the information.

And both Wikis and Blogs today are really bad at supporting the collection of documents and links, tagging those.

The structure part is also really interesting. I love the idea of tagging. It frees me from having to think about the hierarchy. Certainly now that I have desktop search, I’m less concerned about where files get place and my inbox doesn’t get sorted into a whole bunch of project specific folders anymore. At the same time, I’ve not found tagging to be very helpful to me. It’s too random. I find that I’m missing things. I end up having to go back to search and retag.

Yeah, I know that Web 2.0 is all about having software in small chunks that you can compose together. But, it sure doesn’t feel easy right now having all these separate pieces running around.

Worse yet, what would I recommend a client adopt who wants to do the same kind of thing internally?

I’m really excited about where this is going, but I feel like we are actually at Web 2.0 pre-alpha release right now.

Or am I missing it?

Keywords: eLearning Trends, eLearning 2.0, Web 2.0


Bill Bruck said...

I think a lot of people are asking these questions, and while the questions are sound, I think that the framework may be limiting vis a vis the answers.

I think that the limitation is that, IMO, it's not about web 2.0. It's about what collaborative toolsets and environments can support the nature of work that the group requires.

Blogs, wikis, and social bookmarking are this year's entrants. But the fact that they are free and easy to set up is no more a prescription for their use than it would be in choosing a new LMS or financial package for your business. There are other criteria that may be more important than purchase and setup cost.

In this case, I think there's a pretty rich tradition of groupware, collaboration environments, web conferencing systems, etc. that (especially) businesses should look at in deciding how to support the work of their distributed teams. Some of these incorporate web 2.0 technologies; some don't.

But in my mind, it's not a problem with web 2.0; it's a problem in narrowing our focus TO web 2.0.

Tony Karrer said...

Bill - you mention a "rich tradition of groupware, collaborative environments, web conferencing systems" ... I've seen these come and go over the years and have not seen much adoption. I would generally say the hurdle of adoption has been higher than the value proposition in many cases. There have been some big successes.

I'm curious if you feel there are tools in that space that meet the basic requirements that I described in the post.

Also, if you have good sources on the latest and greatest in these tools, that would be great to see.

I do agree that it's not just Web 2.0, but the lower barrier represented by Web 2.0 along with the changing demands in learning are an interesting mix that allows us to look again more at alternative approaches. Thus, your "rich tradition" may be very valuable.

And thanks for the insights.