Disliking “Web 2.0” and Hating “Web 3.0”

I was asked recently in an interview:

“You’ve written quite a bit about Web 2.0 tools and medical librarianship […snip…] Are there ways in which you see health sciences librarianship 2.0 as differing from Library 2.0?”

I answered that I’m actually not all that fond of the the “2.0” suffix, whether it is applied to “Web,” “Library,” “Medicine” or “Health.”

This answer was lame and incomplete, something I’m not proud of. Even though I’m not entirely happy with it, maybe this one will be better.

The term “Web 2.0” is a metaphor representing the idea that the Web is in it’s “second version”. It is not, in my view, a particularly good metaphor.

Some trends commonly associated with “Web 2.0” are tools for collaboration (and other “social” activities), applications that live online and in your Web browser, rounded corners (and other aesthetic choices), and the blurring of the line between content consumer and content creator. The term “Web 2.0” can be a useful shorthand with which to describe these tends and in aggregate and I’m not opposed to the idea that these trends are, taken together, significant enough to collectively merit a term referring to them. My impression is that this term is most especially useful when marketing Silicon Valley investment opportunities to potential investors.

Some other critics of the term have asserted that “Web 2.0” as a term is meaningless. I disagree. This piece by Tim O’Reilly does a great job of explaining what he means when he says “Web 2.0.”


  • The Web hasn’t been upgraded. There’s no new version of the Web. The longer a medium is around, the more interesting things people figure out how to do with it. This isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) surprising. Tim Berners-Lee, the person generally credited as having invented the World Wide Web, saidThe entire transcript of remarks by Berners-Lee on this topic is available here.:

    “Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along…the idea of the Web as interaction between people is really what the Web is. That was what it was designed to be as a collaborative space where people can interact.”

  • Many things that are new and cool on the Web are not “Web 2.0.” Sometimes, new and cool things are the Web are just new and cool and really don’t need a numeric versioning suffix.
  • Although some might see it as semantic nit-pick, I believe that there’s no such thing as “using Web 2.0I may not like the title of Phil Bradley’s book- but I think the book itself is quite good. (Way too expensive, but quite good.) and that Web 2.0 doesn’t have “features”.At least Berci has the excuse of not being a native speaker of English, so I don’t usually give him a hard time for such things. He’s also a really nice guy with a great blog that I subscribe to. “Web 2.0” isn’t a program, a movement or a standard. It is jargon used to describe a set of trends in the sorts of things people are doing on the Web.

There’s nothing wrong with jargon in and of itself- but the term is now so widely and varyingly used that it needlessly creates more confusion among those who most need clarity. More and more, I read things about “Web 2.0” that drive me up the wall.

And now we’ve got people talking about “Web 3.0”

There are a number of things about Dean Giustini’s recent BMJ Editorial on “Web 3.0” with which I am unhappy.I should also point out here that it is a lot easier to criticize an editorial in BMJ than to write one. I admire Dean, I admire the way he promotes librarians as agents of technology and change, and I admire that he makes himself visible in this way to the greater world of healthcare professionals.

First, to continue and enhance the confusion that now comes with every use of a versioning suffix by using “3.0” is a significant disservice. Librarians should be demystifying confusing terms and clarifying definitions. I’m disappointed that neither BMJ nor Dean decided to describe some of the the ways that evolving Web technologies may impact healthcare. Instead, the article appears impressive to people who aren’t familiar with the buzzwords (most of BMJ’s readership are not, I am guessing, professional technologists) and says almost nothing to those for whom these buzzwords are all too familiar.

Second, the entire editorial about “Web 3.0” or “The Semantic Web” lacks a definition either term. Is the assumption that perhaps these terms are familiar to the average BMJ reader?

Now, with apologies, some fisking:

Dean writes:

“Each new version of the web should be a better iteration of its predecessor, and web 3.0 should be no exception.”

Except that there has been, as Berners-Lee points out, no new version of the Web. Part of the problem with the hype surrounding “2.0” is that people who should know better forget that it is a metaphor.

Dean writes:

“In medicine, we should focus on the ability to locate trusted clinical information, while creating the means to produce new knowledge.”

What, because we don’t focus on these things now…?

Dean writes:

“Information retrieval in web 3.0 should be based less on keywords than on intelligent ontological frameworks, such as the National Library of Medicine’s Unified Medical Language System, Medline’s trusted MeSH vocabulary, or some other tool.”

I do not believe that we will live to see a time where the World Wide Web is thoroughly indexed and made searchable with a controlled vocabulary like MeSH. It is a poor analogy for what technologists mean when they speak of “the Semantic Web” and it is a disservice to lead librarians to think that searching the Web will eventually be like searching MEDLINE. It won’t.

Dean writes:

“The question of whether http://del.icio.us and www.connotea.org—two popular social tagging sites—will be useful in web 3.0 remains doubtful.”

This statement confused the hell out of me. Allan Cho (with whom Dean collaborated in writing this article on the Semantic Web) has said one of my favorite things on this topic:

“…use of folksonomies could help overcome some of the inherent difficulties in ontology construction, thus potentially bridging Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web. By using folksonomies’ collective categorization scheme as an initial knowledge base for constructing ontologies, the ontology author could then use the tagging distribution’s most common tags as concepts, relations, or instances. Folksonomies do not a Semantic Web make — but it’s a good start.”Confession: I literally clapped my hands while sitting at my desk the first time I read this quote by Allan and wished I’d written it.

Nicely said, Allan.

Dean writes:

“In medicine, finding the best evidence has become increasingly difficult, even for librarians.”

I don’t think I can agree with this premise. I think that Web tools have made the best stuff increasingly easier to find for those with the skills to use the tools.

Dean continues:

“Despite its constant accessibility, Google’s search results are emblematic of an approaching crisis with information overload, and this is duplicated by Yahoo and other search engines.”

Huh? How are Google search results emblematic of information overload?

Dean continues:

“Consequently, medical librarians are leading doctors back to trusted sources, such as PubMed, Clinical Evidence, and the Cochrane Library, and even taking them to their library bookshelves instead.”

Okay, maybe- but how is this a “Web 2.0” trend? Haven’t librarians always struggled to get their patrons to use the best tools?

Dean continues:

“Unless better channels of information are created in web 3.0, we can expect the information glut to continue.”

Dean has previously blamed “Web 2.0” for “information overload”, now he seems to say that Google is responsible for an “information glut”. Both of these assertions are just silly.

The Web makes a whole lot of information easily available to a whole lot of people (which I see as a good, desirable thing) and many people lack the information skills to get just the stuff they want- but to assert that “Web 2.0” or Google cause information overload (with absolutely no support) is just beyond my ability to comprehend.


Because in the hands of a skilled user, Google is a powerful tool for filtering out the chaff. Because I routinely use “Web 2.0” tools (like RSS feeds from del.icio.us or blogs) to benefit from the readings and tags and opinions of friends and colleagues- this helps me stay focused just on the good stuff. How else would I keep on top of all the stuff this blog covers?

Okay. Enough fisking.

What about “Medicine 2.0” and “Health 2.0”?

“Medicine 2.0” bugs me perhaps even more than “Web 2.0”. It is a way of marketing tools that apply newish Web trends to the needs of health professionals. How does the term serve anyone but investors and those who have something to sell investors? Why the heck should healthcare professionals embrace and adopt this marketing schtick when they could instead demand terms that are clear and descriptive?

“Health 2.0” is term for hyping the application of newish Web trends to the needs of healthcare consumers. Again, it appears to be useful in selling investment opportunities. Do the rest of of need the term? No. We can instead refer with more clarity and simplicity to Web sites and Web services for healthcare consumers.

So what about “Library 2.0”?
I think that I have come to agree with T. ScottThough I still think T. Scott was, in this instance, unfair to Casey and Savastinuk. The work is important and good, but the term is not. I urge librarians, particularly bibliobloggers, to use the term carefully (if at all). We don’t need it to describe the application of Web trends and technolgies to library work, we REALLY don’t need it in order to describe making libraries more patron-centric, and when we use it (usually failing to explain/define it) we add to the confusion and needlessly alienate potential ALLIES for improving computer literacy in libraryfolk and in patrons.

I like Wikis and blogs and RSS and APIs and mashups and portable data and rich user experiences and social networking tools and online productivity tools and social bookmarking. I’m fascinated by the new and interesting things people keep doing with the Web. I believe that librarians need to be technologists and need to know what “Web 2.0” means- but that doesn’t mean they need to add to the existing confusion. It means they need to help smooth it away.

Jargon is fine in small groups of specialists- but information professionals, I think, have a special responsibility to help others overcome and dismiss jargon when it gets in the way of sharing information. Not only to bring the benefits of these new technologies to all our colleagues, but to all our patrons.

For that reason and to keep me sane, please: No more talk of “Web 3.0.”

In case it isn’t obvious by now: I’d like to hear your thoughts, whether you agree or disagree with mine. Leave a comment, wouldja’?

24 thoughts on “Disliking “Web 2.0” and Hating “Web 3.0”

  1. Really interesting piece, which I’ll have to sit back and read more thoroughly. Glad that you liked the book, and I agree with you on the price, but unfortunately I didn’t have any control over that!

  2. I know it, Phil- that’s why I suggested to my local consortium that they buy a copy for member library staffers to borrow. 🙂

  3. I have been at work for 36 minutes and you have made my day. When I hear anything “2.0” (let alone 3.0, seriously show me that web 2.0 even exists before trying to convince me that we’re on our 3.0) my brain now shuts down. I really feel that my users will use whatever technology best meets their needs regardless of when it was invented…That’s why I occasionally have to walk to someone’s office to talk to them in person, and is also the reason I still have a phone on my desk (I like to think of the phone as “walking to the someone’s office and talking to them” 2.0 ;)).

  4. Excellent critique. I particularly like that you point out that there is no new version of the web to correspond to “3.0”. It’s an evolving continuum. On the other hand, I don’t think this critique will carry much weight with those who are fond of using the 2.0 or 3.0 rubrics. One of the things that startled me when the initial Library 2.0 discussions started was the number of people who said that it didn’t matter that we didn’t have a clear definition of the term. I still can’t quite figure out how you can have a productive discussion about something when there isn’t an agreed upon definition of the fundamental terms being used in the discussion. You say that “librarians should be demystifying confusing terms and clarifying definitions.” I agree, but clearly, many other bright people feel otherwise.

  5. T. Scott wrote:

    “…I don’t think this critique will carry much weight with those who are fond of using the 2.0 or 3.0 rubrics.”

    Yeah, I know- but that’s no reason to hesitate in expressing my disagreement with them.

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. 🙂

  6. A couple of other things — I’m confused by the equation of the semantic web with Web3.0 and I’m puzzled by the definition of semantic web that is used in the BMJ article. As Dean points out in the editorial, the phrase goes back at least to 2001 and the Berners-Lee article in Scientific American. Dean also refers to an article on the semantic web by Robu, Robu & Thirion that was published in a 2006 issue of the JMLA. That article’s extensive bibliography also highlights the extensive literature on the semantic web going back over the last six or seven years. So equating “semantic web” with Web 3.0 and defining it as “a project that intends to create a universal medium for information exchange from 2008 and beyond” seems very confusing to me. Maybe I’m missing something.

    On the subject of information overload, I heard a superb presentation some weeks ago by David M. Levy (Information School at the University of Washington) in which he discusses the history of the term and the ways in which it has been dealt with in the past. He has an article forthcoming in Ethics and Information Technology titled “No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship” that is well worth looking up. (The article can currently be found in the “online first” portion of the journal — I don’t think the print issue is out yet.)

  7. An interesting, detailed post. I’ve found it useful to think of “Web 2.0” as O’Reilly’s trademarked term for a series of conferences, and let it go at that.

    The conflation of Web 3.0 and the “Semantic Web” is, I think, fairly common. I’m another of those who believe that, while XML may offer real advantages in some areas, a true semantic web is extremely unlikely (and, oddly enough, I said so to Sir Berners-Lee on the one occasion I met him). The corpus of new web material at all levels without the kind of XML density and clarity that would support machine-to-machine semantic understanding continues to grow a lot faster than the material that would support the “semantic web,” I suspect.

    As for T. Scott’s being fair to Michael Casey: Well, you know, one of Casey’s first definitions of Library 2.0 said, in precisely these words, “Proponents of this concept expect that ultimately the Library 2.0 model for service will replace outdated, one-directional service offerings that have characterized libraries for centuries.” “Replace” and “outdated” don’t sound to me like “incremental improvement” language–try as I might, I can only read those as “this rather than that.” (Of course, that was long ago and far away, in a universe now forgotten…)

  8. Walt-

    I predicted in advance that this post would receive comments from T. Scott and from you. Thank you for never disappointing. 🙂

    I only thought that one particular argument Scott made in one particular post about one particular thing Casey and Savastinuk wrote was off. In general, I agree with him.

  9. I agree. So much, in fact, that I plan to storm out of a “2.0 Work Group” meeting I have on Thursday. (That is, unless someone brings doughnuts.)

    An interesting post, for sure. I’ve always thought of “2.0” being the philosophical change which blurs “the line between content consumer and content creator” rather than the physical change of the web. But, either way, a terminology re-do is probably in order.

    Ah, the fun you can have when you try to define folksonomic terms.

  10. Next time I’m in MN, Mark, I really would like to buy you a drink. Or doughnuts.

    But “Web 2.0” has a clear origin and meaning. It shouldn’t be so nebulously defined and is only made so by poor usage.

    By all means, use it. But use it smartly and clearly.

  11. I guess I don’t have a problem with the terms Web 2.0 or 3.0 because I do think Dean defined Web #.0 in his glossary – though I would not have put the 3 in the term. “Web 3.0 – a term used to describe the evolution of the web, and our responses to it, in finding and organising new information.” I think there are phases of web evolution that can be subdivided by the features and functionality of the web technologies available at a given time and that this is as good a way as any to define the phases of web evolution. I do believe the semantic web will be different from what we know now and it will be so different that we will be able to discern and identify the phase. Just look at this:
    Now for me, Dean’s editorial really got me thinking about how fast the web is evolving and how important answers to medical queries are in providing safe and effective treatments for our patients. Questions that came to my mind were: How can medical librarians help in the advancement of the web so our databases are part of the knowledge the web taps into? How can we lead our health professionals “behind the scenes” to our trusted resources while they are typing their queries into a search engine on the web? I really enjoy reading David’s blog on a regular basis and I love that he addressed Web 3.0 on his blog. Thanks David for all your great thoughts!

  12. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who feels that the characteristics of “Web 2.0” make it worthy of the “2.0” status. I’ve never understood what aspects of “2.0” made it so “revoluationary”.

    I love the description of “Web 2.0” as a metaphor, because that’s how I’ve been conceptualizing (and using) the “2.0” terminology.

    Thanks David!

  13. Pingback: Health World Web » Blog Archive » News of note

  14. David, welcome to librarianship, where terms that have no real meaning and help nobody go to linger and suffer before dying. 😉 Seriously, though, I appreciate this commentary and think it’s a conversation worth having, and you make some very good points.

  15. Pingback: Lectures sur Blogue CISMeF

  16. Pingback: davidrothman.net » Blog Archive » The Beauty of the Dialectial Process

  17. Hey this is fun David – I’m a few days behind getting to see this one – had no idea I was missing out on such an event – David letting off steam about 2.0 – phew, you’ve been holding that in a while haven’t you 😉 Tell you what, I think I’ll go blog about Web/Health/Medicine 3.0 and dedicate the piece to you! (just can’t resist pulling your leg here David). But as much as you might, I don’t think you going to stop wide use of this terminology since there’s just too much money being thrown at it – and if you can’t beat them… (but in respect of your opinion, I did just remove such a reference to the term 2.0 from MedWorm! My blog, however, will continue to ride on this bandwagon, since I quite like its pace).

  18. I have no hope of stopping people from using “x.0” to describe things, Frankie.

    I want users (whether librarians, library patrons, clinicians or patients) to be able to separate meaningful information from hype. For that to happen, people who write about these technologies for these groups will need to consider using such terms more carefully and selectively.

  19. Pingback: What’s on the web? (12 January 2008) « ScienceRoll

  20. Again from Life as a Healthcare CIO
    Web 2.0 for the CIO
    Basic intro ++
    ” I want to admit publicly that I did not embrace Web 2.0 fast enough. At Harvard, we do provide easy to use content management for departmental websites (not individuals), online document sharing, calendars, news and forums. We also host dozens of Wiki sites….”

    From a Jan 18th comment: “I’ve been in the center of several wiki deployments within organizations. These are generally well accepted and widely used.

    They suffer from two problems typically. First, the search facilities can be limited. “I know the thing I want is in here…somewhere.”

    And secondly they can degenerate into a mess of outdated pages. My advice is to consider having a part-time information architect on board to help design the information architecture. At the very least, consider a good librarian with a digital background. I believe constant tuning and pruning is a necessary part of wiki success……”

  21. I remain dizzy amidst all these references to 2.0, I should be honest. I am enjoying the expression, the connection, and the education it entails though. However, obviously, as a fairly recent blogger and definitely new to this boom I suppose, this post is enlightening. It gave me a lot of new perspective and understanding. Thanks.