It’s helpful every now and then to remember that “Web 2.0″ started as a bit of a joke. The American publisher, Tim O’Reilly was sitting around with some friends, talking about how much the Web had changed over the past few years. In a moment of lightness, someone suggested that it was as if the Web were a software product that had gone to a new release level. For the public sector, there’s an important truth in the term “Web 2.0″, but its jokiness can also mislead us.
The truth of “Web 2.0″ is that the Internet is about us, manifested in wikis, blogs, social networks, and the rest of what gives us voice. But we are misled if we think that the act of giving the Web a discrete number “2.0” is anything more than a joke. O’Reilly was right to point out that that things had really changed since the Web first was invented. The Web had become more interactive. But many take the “2.0” too literally, acting as if Web 1.0 was only about corporate and media sites. In fact, from the first moment that Tim Berners-Lee hyperlinked two pages together, the Web has been about users connecting to one another and being creative together. What has driven the Web from the beginning has been the enthusiasm of users getting to talk to the world and to one another. It’s gotten easier over time for users to do so, but it is simply a misreading of history to cede Web 1.0 to commercial interests. Users built and shaped the Web from its outset.
This would just be an argument over history, except that we keep making the same mistake. Right in the middle of “Web 1.0″, around 2000, the media fairly consistently reported on the Web as if it were mainly a new business opportunity. This did not square with the everyday experience of the millions of people on the Web. We weren’t there primarily to have a better shopping experience. We were there to talk in our own voices about what mattered to us, and to connect with others. The fact that we keep forgetting that the Web is not merely a new place to conduct business, a new way to deliver entertainment, or a new way to run a government indicates that something more is going on. Our traditional institutions seem to need to keep telling themselves over and over that nothing much has changed. They want to believe that they are the ones who make the Web important, and what we the users do is merely cute, amateurish, and trivial.
But that gets it backwards. What we users and citizens are doing together on the Web is exactly what makes it important and even transformative. Governments and businesses are ultimately going to have to learn from what we do for ourselves rather than insisting that we need the heavy hand of the traditional institutions to guide us.
So, what is it that users do on the Web that is so transformative? Individual sites and acts may be trivial, but their breadth and creativity indicate the depth of the change. The Web isn’t a software product, designed for some purpose. So, we can’t meaningfully fill in the phrase “The Web is for ____” like the way we can say that a word processor is for writing and a home finance package is for paying bills. The Web is more like a second world, one that touches the first world at every turn, in which we get to do everything that world allows. It’s limited to what we can do with bits, of course, just as the real world is limited to what can be done with atoms. But that leaves open a field for innovation as broad as any in our history.
The first practical consequence of this for municipalities is the importance of lurking. The word “lurk” in English has a connotation of voyeurism and spying from the shadows, but when applied to the Internet, it means simply to watch carefully for a good long time before acting. Ultimately, it means to be open to learning. And it implies that you are watching a culture sufficiently different that it’s best to observe before making judgments. Lurking is crucial.
But it would be naive to insist that because the Web is a world of open possibility, nothing at all can be said about it. The Web is essentially hyperlinked and permission-free, and that does give rise – not inevitably – to a particular ethos. For example, because anyone can post anything, usually quite easily, we tend to post more, rather than less, faster rather than after careful reflection, in public rather than behind locked doors. Because the Web is hyperlinked, we are as interested in connections as in content. We express ourselves by what we link to. Because we can always link to a page and offer commentary, the value moves off of individual pages and towards the nexus of links. And because anyone can hyperlink to anything – using both the Web’s openness and its hyperlinked structure – it’s all a big mess.
The messiness of the Web is perhaps its oddest facet, especially when looked at from a government’s point of view. Governments are orderly, and their orderliness flows from the top. The Web doesn’t have a top. It resists tops. It makes fun of tops. It is a chaos of connections. It is as messy as a democracy of engaged and argumentative citizens. That conflict of topologies – the orderly, top-down hierarchy meeting the messy upswell from beneath – will determine the shape of government going forward.
We don’t know what that shape will be because we haven’t finished inventing yet, and because this is a political struggle the outcome of which is essentially unknowable. But, if the Web continues to be important, its two chief characteristics – its openness and hyperlinked nature – will be at the heart of what emerges.
Let us assume, then, that as municipalities wrestle with how to use the Web to serve their citizens, those municipalities will honor, respect and preserve the openness and connectedness that are at the heart of the Web. After all, those Web values are also essential values in a democracy. So, how can municipal governments manifest those values on and through the Web?
For example, to serve openness, a municipality should make sure that its citizens have access to the Internet, just as they have access to electricity. That access should be ubiquitous, not only because it’s convenient to be able to get your email while in a public park, but because unequal access perpetuates economic and class divides.
Openness also implies access to information. Municipalities should make sure that all public documents are available online. In fact, as the cost of recording is dropping quickly, why not put every meeting up on the Web, where anyone can see it?
Openness also requires that public information be available in open, public formats. This material is too important to be left in proprietary data formats that can be rendered unreadable by a private company’s bankruptcy … or its decision to move its product to its next revision level. Likewise, “This page best viewed with Internet Explorer” should never show up on a government Web page.
The hyperlinked, connected nature of the Web also brings about certain expectations of municipalities. We want not just to receive bundles of information electronically. We want to connect to it, to enhance it, to share it, to make it our own. Making information available in standard formats enables us to “mash it up”, incorporating it into our own projects, and perhaps surfacing unexpected relationships.
More important, the connected nature of the Web enables us to connect to one another, forming groups “ridiculously easily”, as Clay Shirky puts it. Where communications from the government traditionally have been one-to-many, increasingly we citizens will be hyperlinking ourselves into quick committees and discussion groups. Municipal governments should therefore assume that what they’re telling us will not stay with any one individual reader but will be the topic of conversation for a group of us who will talk it over and perhaps act on it. One-to-many becomes one-to-many-groups.
But the connectedness of the Web means that we don’t just want to get carefully crafted messages from our government. The Web’s connections are direct and personal, from my desktop to yours. We want our government officials to engage with us directly and personally. It may be through blogs or emails or any of the other new forms of rhetoric we’re inventing, but the Web’s connectedness means that we want to hear people talk in their own voice, and enter in conversation with us.
The Web’s openness and connectedness do not exhaust all of the Web’s characteristics, of course. The Web also enables efficiencies, such as letting citizens fill out forms on line rather than by queueing at city offices. And some tasks that are difficult for small groups of officials to do are quite easy if distributed across the willing populace. For example, citizens can report burned out bulbs on street lamps via the Web through their mobiles. Then there are wikis, user-based news aggregators such as Digg, micro-blogging services such as Twitter, and whatever will be invented tomorrow, any of which might turn out to be tools useful to municipal governments.
But that’s the point. Because the Web is open, we can’t predict what will be invented. Because it’s connected, inventions can have enormous social effects. Because it’s open and connected, it is highly likely that the most important innovations in municipal governments’ use of the Web will come from the Web, not from municipal governments.
Which is simply to say that perhaps the most misleading aspect of Web 2.0 is the implication that the Web is developed in some orderly fashion that leads from version 1 to version 2 to version 3. The Web’s creativity is too chaotic for that. It moves ahead with millions of small steps. There’s just no telling what we will come up with, but whatever we do will be “ours”, as surely as our government and our democracy is intended to be.