Like the adage about pornography, a precise definition of "Web 2.0" is elusive, but I know it when I see it. Back in 2005, Tim O'Reilly (of the eponymous media publishing company) wrote a comprehensive overview of What is Web 2.0. From the end-users perspective, 2.0's key attributes, O'Reilly presciently suggested, include "harnessing collective intelligence" (think Wikipedia) and "rich user experiences" (think YouTube).
I would add that the most powerful and defining characteristics of Web 2.0 applications are the real-time (or near real-time) distribution and sharing of individual experiences. Whether its videos, photos, words or music, the high-velocity growth of services like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook are centered around the capability of taking the uniqueness of one person's life, sharing it with others, and vice-versa.
The scale and diversity of these applications is unprecedented, but, of course, the use of technology to connect people is not. In fact, there's a strong case that the course of technological development over the past two-hundred years - railroads, telegrams, radio, telephone, TV, air travel, mobile phones, the Internet - has been driven by the goal of connecting people, for economic and social benefit.
There's a qualitative difference between the massive, grand-scale innovations of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the bottom-up affect of today's many smaller-scale efforts to connect people. But, the emergence of everyday technologies to connect people in a simple, one-on-one manner is not unique - and played a significant part in the lives of many of us in the 35 and older crowd. I recently had the opportunity to re-examine some of the popular technology products from my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, as a contributing commentator for William Lidwell's forthcoming Deconstructing Product Design. It was during this period of writing that I recognized parallels between the popular technologies of 25+ years ago, and the digital social networking tools of today:
Sharing and Tagging Photos - The Polaroid Instant Camera
My father was an amateur photographer. He had built out a good part of our Brooklyn basement into a darkroom for developing film (toxic chemicals, rubber gloves) and owned numerous high-end contemporary and antique cameras. But he still saw the value in purchasing a Polaroid SX-70. Unlike predecessor "instant" cameras, the Polaroid was a true SLR, and the film development process was not only quick, but automatic. The photographer did not have to do anything to develop the ejected film (e.g. tearing, shaking, etc). This, in conjunction with the suspense of watching the transition from green blobs to colorful images, made it ideal for kids to use.
The ability to take pictures and then quickly see the results increased the informality around photography that we take for granted with digital cameras and camera phones today. Rather than waiting days or weeks to finish the film roll, drop it off for processing and then await the opening of the photos (incidentally, a suspenseful ritual that has been lost), Polaroid photographers could share photos instantly (more or less). The casual nature of this photography led to photographing multiple takes, or images of the same event to get slightly different perspectives and to create copies to give to people who shared in the moment.
This share-ability characteristic alone is noteworthy, but it was the thoughtful design features of the entire system that really fostered interpersonal communication. For example, the picture format included a sizable tab, a "whitespace" if you will, that was typically used to write brief descriptive or entertaining notes about the photo. And the camera was not just portable, but collapsible. In fact, the collapsed SX-70 (above) looks strikingly similar to a modern smart phone, with the viewfinder housing resembling a belt-clip.
Sharing Music and Playlists - The Sony Walkman
It may seem strange to discuss the Walkmanas an example of technology connecting people. After all, it is the grandfatherly symbol of escapist entertainment, separating the listener from the outside world and people. But that didn't seem to be the intent in the original model, with two headphone jacks for shared listening experiences and a muting function to allow conversation. Similarly, Andreas Pavel who invented the Walkman’s predecessor, the Sterobelt, saw his invention as a "means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation”, rather than dividing the listener from reality.
If anything it is the more recent developments of digital rights management that have made iPods and other Walkman descendants into more solitary devices. The power of the Walkman, and its competitors, was the medium - the audio cassette, which empowered anyone to create their own music mixes (aka playlists) from their collection of records, tapes, and eventually CDs. The Walkman then became the medium for tape-sharing musical preferences and discoveries. And again a small amount of whitespace allowed for descriptive tagging, decoration or at least identification.
In retrospect, it's easy to see how these popular technologies spread the memes of sharing, and were I clairvoyant, I would prognosticate on how some of our modern, emerging technologies will foreshadow our future activities. For example, perhaps gestural interfaces will enable the sharing of physical interactions the same way now can with visual and auditory information. Or future generations will be able to share artifacts and memories from their entire past lives as easily as we can email a photo. Only time will tell, but my advice to designers of these to-be-determined technologies is simple...make sure to leave room for some whitespace.