The Internet Morphs
into Web 2.0

June 2006

My favorite scene in Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer is when Tom’s aunt Polly punishes him by making him whitewash the fence. Not being inclined to work and dreading being teased by friends while he slaves away, he comes up with the brilliant strategy of reverse psychology: make it look like so much fun that his friends not only beg him to let them do it, but bribe him with whatever meager treasures they own.

In short order, the fence gets three coats of whitewash as well as a streak along the ground in front of it.

So how does that relate to the Internet? We’re in the midst of yet another Internet revolution, called Web 2.0, and both Time and Newsweek alluded to this very scene from Twain’s novel in their attempt to characterize it.

I kept hearing about Web 2.0 and kept reading disparate accounts of what it meant. But now there’s a consensus emerging that this latest phase is reminiscent of the conniving Tom Sawyer in that creators of Web 2.0 sites have connived to get users to create the content.

Among the most famous is MySpace, a “social networking” web site which is growing so rapidly that it’s on track to become the most popular site on the Internet. It’s also infamous for its appeal to pedophiles, who tend to use it to meet underage teens.

Nearly every young Internet user now has a profile on MySpace or another social networking site. This typically entails signing up for a free account, posting personal information about one’s schooling, favorites, employment, etc, posting photos, making entries in a blog (like an online diary), posting movies, etc.

But it’s more than just a web presence. It’s networking. All of these services have a feature that lets you link to your friends. Once you have a profile, you can invite friends to join your network. Your friends can post comments about you on your profile page.

Typically a network can be 20 to 100 or more friends, and you get notified every time one of your friends updates his or her blog, adds a photo, posts a comment, or sends you a message. Many young kids are now spending hours a day, keeping up with their network of friends.

You can search these sites to find profiles of people in your area. This was a bit of an eye opener for me. I found that there were a lot of familiar faces on Friendster, where I have my profile. It was interesting to see their collection of photos, see who their friends were, get a glimpse of their interests, and read people’s comments about them.

Of course, one can use these sites to meet people with the same interests or to meet friends of friends. But I sense that these are not so much dating sites as they are deeply engaged networks of friends.

Others are Xanga, which seems to be heavily used by kids aged 12–16, LinkedIn, which is for professional networking, and Facebook, for college students.

Other sites often considered to be the epitome of Web 2.0 are Flickr and YouTube. Flickr has rapidly become the most popular site for posting one’s photos. This was long possible on other sites, but Flickr added a twist: the photos can be made publicly available, creating a huge collective scrapbook.

Plus, the site uses a simple system of user-generated tags to organize the photos. When you upload a photo or photos, you specify whatever keywords come to mind that are associated with the photos. Flickr, with some 130 million photos, ingeniously uses these tags to group photos and to create clusters of related tags, making it easy to find lots of photos on related themes.

This system of tags is starting to become a convention of Web 2.0 and is also used on Youtube, which hosts short videos — about 35,000 new videos are uploaded each day.

Both Flickr and Youtube also have community features similar to the social networking sites.

As you can see, Web 2.0 is very participatory. Unlike the early days of the Internet, which mainly entailed reading text on web sites, in this new iteration, users are also creators of content.

So like Tom Sawyer, founders of Web 2.0 sites get users to upload and self-organize content, as well as facilitate connections among users. Young Tom got an apple, a dead rat on a string, marbles, and other booty from his friends who begged to whitewash the fence. Today’s Internet Tom Sawyers are now millions of dollars richer.

© 2006 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen