Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Ways of thinking and ways of representing

I've been thinking lately about the interaction of ideas spreading and the labeling of those ideas. Every so often, a new technology trend spreads around, creating a buzz. But I'm getting to the point where the buzzwords no longer create much excitement for me, no longer represent to me a new way of thinking or approaching a problem. I suspect my changing attitude has two sources. First, I'm in touch with the field enough that I see the small bits of progress in ideas that precede the label and the hype. (Or at least once the trend gets a name I can identify signs of its development in hindsight!) Second, as I see more and more of these trends play out, I'm becoming more skeptical about the revolution each one promises. Often a single idea is represented as single-handedly altering the information landscape, but instead I for the most part see many factors converging to affect a change.

Rarely is the idea truly new and revolutionary once it gets a label. Consider "Web 2.0." One recent much-cited explanation from Tim O'Reilly appeared recently. It gets a label because it's emerging as a trend across many different implementers. In turn, the label inspires more implementers. But the O'Reilly article shows the label is intended to provide a convenient way of referring to an emerging paradigm, rather than as a means of causing a shift. But as this article indicates, labels can quickly descend in common usage to mean the catalyst rather than an assessment of an existing trend. True interactivity, meaningful end-user participation, and personalization aren't the result of "Web 2.0." Rather, "Web 2.0" gives us an easy way to refer to these and other similar trends that together represent an emerging shift in the norm of the Web.

I don't mean to say Web 2.0 is a "meaningless marketing buzzword," as the O'Reilly article warns against. I do, however, think we need to remember that the label is not the buzz. The work of countless people over a period of time finding ways to make their ideas a reality, which happen to coalesce around a theme, is what's really important.

No comments: