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The real difference between the two 2.0s

This article appears in the issue February 2007 [Volume 16, Issue 2]

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Tim O¹Reilly reports that the concept of "Web 2.0" arose from a whiteboarding session in which folks started coming up with pairs that illustrate where the Web was and what it¹s become: From Britannica Online to Wikipedia, to Napster, home pages to blogs, taxonomies to folksonomies. Enough had changed, the group thought, that the Web deserved to have a new revision number slapped on it. Thus was Web 2.0 launched. And it caught on. Now, inevitably, there's talk of "KM 2.0." There¹s some justification for using the term, but we should be careful and not let it obscure the very real differences to the state of the Web and the state of KM.

The term Web 2.0 was invented to call our attention to what look like serious changes in the Web ecosystem. Even if it turns out that those changes are unconnected from one another, the term might still apply if collectively the Web now is so very different from how it was 10 years ago. But, we still want to know if anything connects those changes. Are there Trends with a capital T?

It turns out that the changes that make up Web 2.0 are quite various, so finding the trends requires going way up the ladder of abstraction. Web 2.0 advocates point to the Web becoming more participatory, but that leaves out the Web 2.0 phenomenon of increased automation through the use of APIs and open standards. And both of those leave out the mashing up of information and services from all over, a hallmark of Web 2.0. So, what unifies all of these phenomena? We¹re forced to go up to 50,000 feet to point at the Web¹s open architecture, its lowering of the barriers to publishing, the ease with which people can connect ideas, the increase in available bandwidth and computing power...

But, if those factors explain how various phenomena justify saying the Web is a new release level, those factors are themselves continuous throughout the history of the Web. There have been continuous and incremental changes in bandwidth and computing power. There have been continual innovations in ease of use and in the establishment of usable standards, including XML and RSS. These things did not happen in sync, as one might assume from the granting of a new release number to the Web.

The danger of slapping a 2.0 on the Web is that it leads some to think that the changes represent a discontinuity. So, some have said that with Web 2.0, the Web has become "participatory," implying that before that, it wasn't participatory. That gets history seriously wrong. From its beginnings, the Internet and the Web have gotten their value from the citizens who put up home pages, chatted, e-mailed, IM¹ed and built new applications. The Web's been participatory from its inception. Yet, it is certainly true that blogging software and wikis have dramatically lowered the barrier to participating. Likewise, applications were integrated with other apps before Web 2.0, although the growth of APIs and standards has made it much easier than before. So, while Web 2.0 correctly draws our attention to real changes, it would be a mistake to think that the phrase implies that those changes were radical innovations, and not better-faster-easier versions of what we already were doing.

That's why, in my opinion, KM 2.0 is both a useful phrase and fundamentally different from Web 2.0. KM 2.0 points to Web 2.0-ish phenomena gaining prominence in the KM space: bottom-up, participatory, rapid innovation, more mixing up and mashing up of information. These are all good things, or at least good things to try. But they are truly discontinuous from the paradigmatic versions of KM 1.0, which were all about managing and controlling information environments.

So, I think it makes sense to talk about Web 2.0 and about KM 2.0. Both point to real changes. But it's simultaneously important to recognize the real difference between the two 2.0s. Web 2.0 gives a label to a set of phenomena continuous with what came before; KM 2.0 announces a significant change in KM. And not a moment too soon.

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