The Web 2.0 Trinity: People, Data, and Great Software

I've still been absorbing all the terrific brainstorming that came out of SPARK last weekend. One of the key bits that was agreed upon by all almost immediately was the utter centrality of the user. I've been a big believer of this since early in my software career and I've made this point on my own numerous times, probably most famously in my widely read and subsequently slashdotted Five Reasons Why Web 2.0 Matters. Every time that software creators get far from this mark, they lose the software ingredient that matters the most: us. Now, at SPARK we framed it in slightly stronger terms, specifically that the user is the center of the universe.

This highlights an interesting trend, still somewhat obscured, that is taking place with the adoption of a lot of the new types of online software, which many of us call Web 2.0. Specifically, that software itself is now becoming a distinctly third tier citizen to the software experience. And unfortunately, a lot of very competent code slingers have been and will remain distinctly uncomfortable with this. After all, isn't it software that makes all this Web stuff possible? Yes, and software is still critically important. I'm just saying that there are two even more important things to the software experience. One of them has always been the case, that the user is the center and most valuable part of the "construct", this thing we call the Web. And network effects are only magnifying this exponentially, making something too frequently ignored into something almost completely unescapable. I'm fonding of citing the fact that there are now 1 billion users of the Web, and combined with Metcalfe's Law, it's putting the value of the user so much farther ahead of everything else in the equation.

The second element of that equation is data. It's often been more important than software for many applications, but with the Web aggregating volumes and volumes of new and useful data each and every second, software is now getting eclipsed by this phenomenon on the Web as well. We are the source of all attention, data, traffic, customers, associations, relationships, etc. And now that so many of us are connected together on the Web, we not only become the most important ingredient but increasingly, the most important source of the second ingredient as well. 

Thus, the data we want becomes the second fundamental element of interest over software, because it is information that more directly drives what we do and the decisions that we make. O'Reilly has made this point repeatedly with what he calls "data as the next Intel Inside", a slightly unfortunate turn of phrase that means that data is close to becoming the center stage in computing. And becoming the most important part of the majority of applications today. A small example: Google's search database is probably one of the most valuable data sources on the planet, and it's we what we want from it by using Google's primitive "command-line" search interface. Google makes little bones about advanced software feature; you get a text field and a button.

SPARK last weekend. One of the key bits that was agreed upon by all almost immediately was the utter centrality of the user. I've been a big believer of this since early in my software career and I've made this point on my own numerous times, probably most famously in my widely read and subsequently slashdotted Five Reasons Why Web 2.0 Matters. Every time that software creators get far from this mark, they lose the software ingredient that matters the most: us. Now, at SPARK we framed it in slightly stronger terms, specifically that the user is the center of the universe.

Before you go and think that I'm declaring the death of software, far from it. I'm merely proposing an observed hierarchy of value in software that's emerging out of the Web. (And hey, it's still true outside the Web too but it is more ignorable because the network effects aren't there.) Out on the Web, having the users and the useful data is the most important thing. Functionality and software in general are becoming relentlessly commoditized as well. A quick search of Sourceforge can find you a dozen versions of just about any software you could want, from GUI toolkits, to databases, to productivity software, complete with source code and all for free. Creating a place that lots of users want to go to and collecting a great database of uniquely valuable information is not something you will ever be able to download for free. It requires understanding of how to build good communities that people want to be part of and aggregating the best information from them out of their own self-interest. Or even just generating the best buzz, if you're just starting out. It's not longer about having a laundry list of features in your software, it's about having the right features that make your users truly participate in the Web and with each other.

Newsweek: The wisdom of the WebTo further underscore these points, an article in the latest issue of Newsweek focuses on how social sites are leading the current technology boom. And how Google is watching the MySpace phenomenon and wondering why everyone else seems obsessed with Google building online productivity software (admission: myself included.) They seem to realize the real value is in enabling and engaging users and their attention, by providing the fabric of a community that will enrich itself given the right facilitating tools. 

I read James McGovern's brilliant if entirely retro view today on the new models of software creation, and I think he's absolutely right that there is a terrible struggle of perspectives happening. Lots of people are still focusing on the wrong things entirely. Sure, Ruby and Ruby on Rails in particular are going to eventually ascend to the enterprise, probably with a vengeance. But that's not the really important stuff in software today. The hierarchy you see above is the natural order of things when you put control into the hands of the individual. Consequently, I do believe many more traditional organizations are going to be increasingly disrupted by the inversion of control we're seeing; the power over information, processes, and software shifting from the organization to the individual. This is what is meant by the shift to Social Computing.

In any case, when you get the value hierarchy right, you can built uniquely valuable experiences that people will build communities from. This is how MySpace is winning hearts and minds (260,000+ new users a day as of a few days ago) and this is why the Ajax Office arguments, and the debates over enterprise computing toolkits vs. Web startup toolkits, are all the wrong discussion. Focusing on how to engaging and providing value to your users in online communities, whether they are your customers, your colleagues, or your friends or family, is the name of the game. And by weaving people's lives seamlessly and meaingfully into social software, making them have a stake, and giving them both the reasons and the means to contribute. That's how it all works.

Update: The Newsweek article has apparently caused a real stir. The Web 2.0 renaissance continues:

ComputerWorld:  Web 2.0: At the tipping point.
BBC:  Learning to Love Web 2.0
C|Net:  Mainstream media's bumpy road to Web 2.0

What do you think? Is putting software in the back seat behind users and data completely wrong-headed?

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Aiden Reynolds
Aiden Reynolds
Aiden Reynolds is a content editor at WEB 2.0 JOURNAL. He was born and raised in New York, and has been interested in computer and technology since he was a child. He is also a hobbyist of artificial intelligence. Reynolds is known for his hard work ethic. He often puts in long hours at the office, and is always looking for new ways to improve his writing and reviewing skills. Despite his busy schedule, he still makes time for his interests, such as playing video games. In his free time, Reynolds enjoys spending time with his wife and two young children. He is also an active member of the community, and frequently volunteers his time to help out with local events.