Tim O’Reilly: Web 2.0 Is About Controlling Data

It’s not too late to get on the “web 2.0” bandwagon, says publishing magnate Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term. And if you’re wondering what it takes to build a web 2.0 startup, O’Reilly has just the conference for you — the Web 2.0 Expo.

O’Reilly Media and CMP are co-hosting the conference, which runs April 15 to 18 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Organizers expect between 7,000 and 10,000 people to check out the conference’s 120 exhibitors and seven educational tracks, covering topics from the elementary (web 2.0 fundamentals) to the complex and critical (web operations). O’Reilly describes it as a “how-to conference for web 2.0 developers.”

O’Reilly has been on many bloggers’ lips during the past two weeks. The buzz at his recently-concluded ETech conference was about Kathy Sierra’s abrupt cancellation of her speaking appearance there. Sierra cited anonymous death threats and harassment on her own blog’s Comments section, as well as on two blogs created by Cluetrain author Chris Locke. In the ensuing debate, O’Reilly brokered a meeting between Sierra and Locke, and made a call for a “bloggers’ code of conduct.” He even proposed badges that bloggers could put on their sites to indicate whether they moderated comments heavily or not at all.

We spoke with O’Reilly this week to find out what’s in store at the show, the current state of the much-hyped “web 2.0” terminology and his current thoughts on civility in the blogosphere.

Wired News: Can you tell us what’s exciting about web 2.0 and what we can expect from the conference?

Tim O’Reilly: One of the big changes at the heart of web 2.0 is the shift from the creation of software artifacts, which is what the PC revolution was about, to the creation of software services. These are services that ultimately, if they are successful, will require competencies of operation, of scale, and the like.

I remember talking to people about this three or four years ago, and they (wanted to know) how many people need to scale services to the size of Google? Well, there are now hundreds of services as big as Google was back then.

Increasingly, with services like Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) and EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud), we’re starting to see the emergence of operations as a platform, as well as an internal competency. Amazon’s been a real pioneer there.

WN: Are there any trends among the companies exhibiting at Web 2.0 Expo, the kinds of services and technologies being shown?

O’Reilly: Well, obviously this is a market with a lot of froth in it already. I have to say there are a lot of me-too products and companies. Yet another social network, of the 15th flavor — that’s common in every new technology revolution. There are imitators who have marginal improvements.

One of the companies that’s going live on Monday is Spock, which is a people-search engine. It’s really, really impressive. It’s thinking about whether there are other classes of data to which search hasn’t really been applied.

That goes back to a major theme of web 2.0 that people haven’t yet tweaked to. It’s really about data and who owns and controls, or gives the best access to, a class of data. Amazon is now the definitive source for data about whole sets of products — fungible consumer products. EBay is the authoritative source for the secondary market of those products. Google is the authority for information about facts, but they’re relatively undifferentiated.

Why did Google, for example, recently decide to offer free 411 service? I haven’t talked to people at Google, but it’s pretty clear to me why. It’s because of speech recognition. It has nothing to do with 411 service, it has to do with getting a database of voices, so they don’t have to license speech technology from Nuance or someone else. They want their own data stream.

WN: So you think that (control of data) is actually more characteristic of web 2.0 than social networking or Ajax (asynchronous JavaScript and XML) interfaces?

O’Reilly: Absolutely. Anybody who thinks that this is about Ajax is completely missing the boat.

I do think building rich internet applications is an important part of web 2.0. I don’t want to dismiss it, because we are able to build richer application platforms today. But it’s ultimately about network effects, and where do you build services that get better the more people use them? And it’s also about the databases that get created as a result of those network effects.

As far as I’m concerned, web 2.0 is still in it’s really early stages, and the reason is because the data isn’t all owned yet.

The network-effects play is about how you get increasing returns by everybody using your stuff, which is really what Microsoft did on the PC. Here we see it again, where these are winner-takes-all games. The internet looks like an open platform in the beginning, but once somebody gets a lead, their service gets better fast enough, if they’ve harnessed all the right levers, until it becomes a real barrier to entry.

Why, despite many attempts, have we seen nobody able to dethrone eBay? Well, it’s because there are network effects at work in auctions. You have a critical mass of buyers and sellers. We’re seeing that with Google AdWords — it’s just a bigger and better marketplace. There are these tipping points where these services really become monopolistic.

We’re still trying to move people toward really understanding what that new world looks like. I don’t think a lot of people are there. A lot of people still think, “Oh, it’s about social networking. It’s about blogging. It’s about wikis.” I think it’s about the data that’s created by those mechanisms, and the businesses that that data will make possible.

WN: You’ve been blogging about civility and your bloggers’ code of conduct. Do you expect that will be a topic of discussion at the conference? Or do you think it will change the tone of discussions there?

O’Reilly: Well, you know, people at a conference would not tolerate the kind of conversations that happen in the comment threads on many blogs. If somebody started standing up and shouting obscenities, you’d throw them out. My point is, most bloggers are way too tolerant of abusive behavior on their blogs.

I’ve come to think the call for a code of conduct was a bit misguided. A lot of sites have their own terms of service that are a lot like what I proposed for the code of conduct. And I was just saying, let’s get the best of the breed, let’s figure it out, so somebody who wants to have one of these doesn’t have to think it all up for themselves.

People have interpreted that as a call for some kind of MPAA ratings system or something. That’s not at all what I was proposing. I was proposing a modular set of terms of service, so somebody could say, “I don’t want this kind of behavior.” Now, a lot of people already do that, so it’s really much ado about nothing.

The problem, as I’ve really wrestled with it, is that right now your options in terms of enforcing civility are pretty binary. You have the ability to delete someone’s comments (on your own blog), or to let them stand.

There are some fairly sophisticated moderation systems out there. Of course, Slashdot is full of people who make terribly uncivil comments. But it’s possible because they have a good moderation system, where good comments are voted up. You can set your moderation threshold, you can say, “I only want to see the good comments.” So you’re exposed to a hundred useful comments, and the 900 comments that have generally been considered drivel or that haven’t been voted up, you don’t even see them. If you want to read them all, though, more power to you.

Most blogging platforms don’t have that kind of control. I want to get an attempt together to get some good moderation plugins on all the major blogging platforms, so people have other options than simply deleting.

The whole (code of conduct) was a reaction to Chris Locke’s original statement, you know, “I didn’t say that so I have no responsibility.” And I’m going, “Wait a minute, yeah, you do. You’re the manager of a site that was getting progressively nastier, and you let it happen.” It really started with a reaction to this idea that a site owner can and should disclaim comments on their blog.

WN: He did take the blog down.

O’Reilly: Yeah, he did, but that’s actually a terrible outcome, because now nobody knows what really was said. There’s a lot of he said, she said, with a lot of people who were involved saying “Well, it wasn’t really so bad, it wasn’t really a misogynistic, nasty site, it was just funny.” Well, how do we know? We can’t see. It’s gone.

WN: So would you put an “anything goes” button or badge on your own website?

O’Reilly: No, what I’d really like, and what I’m going to work for, is to get some better moderation mechanisms. One of the things Slashdot says is to focus on moderating up, not moderating down. Promote the good (comments), because they’re often really useful, thought-provoking comments and you want those. If we can give people good mechanisms, that’s probably actually better than promulgating any one policy.

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Tim O’Reilly: Web 2.0 Is About Controlling Data