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Web 2.0 | Viewpoint

Web 2.0's Foundation of Sand

More and more of our lives are lived virtually--that is, in the “cloud” of the Web where education, research, social communication, commerce, politics, and even religion increasingly exist and carry on activities. Our entire society is moving rapidly to the all-too-quick sand of Web 2.0.

A major share of creativity and innovation in our country, both from our universities and elsewhere, occurs “on” the Web. But what is built on the Web has no rebars in its foundation, indeed, often no physical foundation--such as offices--at all.

The for-profit and non-profit startups created as derivatives of the foundationless Web 2.0 sites are doubly at risk: their own risk of failing and the additional risk that their enterprise-critical technology will disappear. In this age when wealth-generation seems based on nothing, the transient nature of Web 2.0 sites and applications seem all too similar to mortgage instruments built on sand.

I remember when informed colleagues at a university where I worked described how they perceived the difference between computer engineering and computer science: The engineers build a system that will be sustained over time and will survive the test of time. Computer scientists build systems that are always works-in-progress. There is no doubt we need both, but many Web apps seem to put creativity first and engineering second.

A Cautionary Tale from Higher Education

In 2008, a number of us started planning a new higher education initiative. We used e-mail, of course, and stumbled onto Ning, a social site, where we put up some preliminary information. Realizing that amazing functionality existed in Web 2.0, we tried out a mind-numbing number of sites to see what we could do on behalf of our initiative with these apps: Meebo, Adium, Zoho, Bloglines, Yedda, Twitter, StumbleUpon, Facebook, Skype, Wordpress, LinkedIn, Netvibes, Merlot, Flickr, Shutterfly, Delicious, SocialMedian, PBWorks (nee PBWiki), Mahara, ELGG, PhotoBucket, Kadoo, Diigo, Google Groups, Wetpaint, Square Space, Edmodo, Dimdim, Doodle, Google Wave, Zotero,, Slideshare, and others.

Each year, each month, even each week, we heard of a new application on the Web that would allow us to do something we couldn’t already do. We could also have looked at the thousands and thousands of free or open source apps.

We settled on Google Groups as a way to create groupings within our growing list of members after we launched as a new association in 2009. Secondly, we settled on Wetpaint as our Web site. We do use a number of the apps listed above for supplementary functions: For example, we use Skype as our conferencing system since we have international members for whom no free conference call system applies.

Google Groups, because they are supported by ad revenue and therefore are free, served our purpose for 18 months. Google performs an important function in startup land by providing all the free Apps they do.

However, we have now outgrown Google Groups because the databases behind the Groups are so rudimentary. And Google has been stripping away Groups functionality. First to go was the ability to upload files to Groups. Next to go in 2011 is the ability to edit the welcome message at the top of the home page where we had created a Web page in the welcome message space for each group we have. Google does, of course, offer both Pages and Docs so they still offer the functionality they are taking away from Groups, but using that functionality would require us to have three different sites instead of one integrated site.

Wetpaint started us off joyously as our association Web site. Wetpaint is a social site that has reasonably good Web features but it is also a Wiki, meant to be a multi-player site. People join the site and can be granted low-level rights and access to create content. Discussion forums are provided on every page. The site seemed to reflect the collaborative nature of our association, so, for 18 months, it seemed perfect.

Again, however, a problem emerged. Wetpaint, as a social site, is shaped by its participants. As it happens, a large number of people interested in film and entertainment chose Wetpaint over the last couple of years. As a result, in September, the Wetpaint home page suddenly went “Hollywood,” and the company announced it had a new business plan. Our Wiki sites would be maintained, they said, despite the new business plan. A few weeks after that, our site was suddenly “dead.” We could see it but could not login.

We learned that the site was undergoing maintenance, but only after it had been down for hours. The handwriting was on the wall. Now, just this week as I write, the site went down again “for site maintenance.” For us, this is not a free site: We pay monthly for “premium services.” We have a right to expect better.

Now, as a result of the twin quakes--Google changing the nature of Groups and Wetpaint moving to a new business plan--we are moving to a new site that we are vetting very carefully and which is not free, not social, and might therefore provide stable support for our association.

Home Again

The lessons of our experience, and perhaps of the experience of others, is that startups and other initiatives without venture capital that may need to depend on free Web services to get started must at some point move to commercial sites. The Web, where information wants to be free, and which is wildly creative, innovative, vital, and powerful, offers a great ride. But it is also highly transient with Web apps coming and going, metamorphizing, being bought, or not staying current.

Business, or any major undertaking, depends on stability and predictability. The Web is far from that “stable business incubator” state at this point. It is as if the nature of information technology is to move too fast and evolve too fast for mere humans to work with it. I hear of supercomputers trading in stocks millions of times a day to grab a penny or two from each trade and thus accumulate wealth. Beyond the question of what value this adds to our society--some say high-speed trading generates capital for investment, others question that--is just the simple image of computers battling each other for pennies that magically become billions of dollars over a year.

Still, our association will make the transition to a new Web platform. We do hope, however, that our new platform can be our “home” for more than 18 months.

[Photo by Trent Batson]

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