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ALPSP Technology Update: Web 2.0 Hip or Hype?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Last week I had the pleasure of both attending and speaking at an ALPSP Technology Update event entitled: Web 2.0 Hip or Hype? New ways to engage users with content. The aim of the conference was to ...explain the concepts behind Web 2.0 using real examples of how Web 2.0 technologies are currently being used by scholars, librarians and the broader commercial world. I thought I'd write up a summary of the session for those unable to attend.

The event, which was jointly organised by Scholarly Information Strategies (SIS), consisted of three talks and a subsequent "panel discussion" in which attendees were invited to put additional questions to the speakers.


Geoff Bilder (SIS) had prepared some background reading on Web 2.0 for attendees to look at before the event. Bilder then opened the proceedings, outlining Web 2.0 as an idea, and related technologies that are currently undergoing their natural progression along the Gartner hype cycle. In short: at the moment Web 2.0 seems like a "hip" concept, but its already being accused of being merely hype. Bilder noted that all technologies undergo a similar progression, eventually reaching the "Plateau of Productivity" where they become mainstream. Bilder also observed that Web 2.0 was a hotly discussed topic at a recent NFAIS conference.

This introduction set the scene for the later talks all of which included a note of healthy scepticism, emphasising a pragmatic view to the Web 2.0 ideal.

Web 2.0?!...Huh?

My talk, Web 2.0?!...Huh? was next up. As the first speaker I felt it was my job to attempt to define Web 2.0, as well as explain some of the obscure terminology ("mashup?") and acronyms ("AJAX?").

I had some fun taking the audience through a range of infographics each of which tried to capture the essence of Web 2.0. My particular favourite being the impenetrable one that accompanied an article published in the Web 2.0 journal entitled "Review of the Year's Best Web 2.0 Explanations".

My general point here was to illustrate that Web 2.0 isn't a product, nor is it a single technology, its a label that's been applied to the culmination of a number of different trends (social, business and technical) that have been influencing web activities over the past few years. Publishers should therefore be looking at these trends and how they affect their business and approaches to publishing content, rather than reaching for a concise definition. In short, there isn't one: Web 2.0 is a mindset.

Moving on I discussed a couple of key technologies that are important aspects of Web 2.0, each of which have recently reached the "Plateau of Productivity". CSS, Javascript, AJAX, Web Services, RSS, and a resurgence in browser innovation being key topics.

I showed some screenshots that tried to illustrate the power of these technologies. E.g. the CSS Zen Garden, Flickr's use of AJAX to create more dynamic user interfaces, etc. I used uBioRSS as an interesting and relevant example of how freeing up data (in this case as RSS feeds) enabled researchers to create a useful domain-specific application.

The demo illustrated how RSS can be used for more than just feeding table-of-contents data to readers; RSS is also a basic web service interface. This led nicely into a discussion of mashups and the power now available to developers to assemble applications entirely within the browser.

In response to a later question from the audience I suggested that if publishers were to make one useful step in the direction of embracing Web 2.0 it would be to start publishing more data as RSS feeds. "Outsourcing your innovation" was how I pitched the possibilities that can arise from publishing open data.

What Does It Mean For The Publisher?

Brian Kelly was the next speaker on the schedule. Brian is the "UK Web Focus" at UKOLN and has previously spoken on Web 2.0 and its relevance to the Library and Higher Education sectors. In this talk, "Web 2.0: What Does It Mean For The Publisher?", Kelly explored how various Web 2.0 technologies could be used by the publishing sector.

Kelly's slides are available online and are richly annotated with links, so are worth exploring for further details. His presentation involved a tour through a number of areas such as blogging, wikis, podcasting looking at how they may be used by publishers, not only in publishing content but also to support business processes, e.g. a growing trend to use third-parties services for email, messaging, calendaring and even office software.

Brian explained that universities are embracing many of these technologies as part of a wider move to embrace "virtual learning environments", with students and researchers using blogging, etc as an aspect of their learning. Publishers may want to consider how this might affect how content they publish is discovered and consumed.

Same stuff, New package

The third and final speaker was Terry Hulbert, Product Development Manager at the Institute of Physics (IOP) publishing. Terry's talk, "Web 2.0: same stuff, new package", provided an outline of why publishers should experiment with emerging technologies. Terry's talk was very pragmatic focusing on questions such as "what does this mean for us?", "how we apply this to our products", and provided some insight into how IOP were embracing emerging technologies.

Importantly, Hulbert also discussed some success stories: IOP were the first to adopt RSS for publishing table-of-contents data from their journals, and Terry was able to demonstrate how this data was extending the reach of their content into new areas. This was a nice example of how applying a technology had increased content visibility and usage.

Like Brian Kelly, Hulbert also discussed the application of Web 2.0 ideas; e.g. mapping, publication of calendaring and scheduling information are useful to publishers as small businesses. He also outlined ("same stuff, different package") that many of the ideas behind Web 2.0 concepts aren't really that new in the library/publishing sector. E.g. OpenURL and Z39.50: rich, programmable linking and open APIs.

Hulbert also explained that IOP is continuing to explore use of these and additional technologies, providing some screenshots of a prototype that borrowed ideas such as "tag clouds" to cluster and present data alongside journal search results; using OpenSearch to integrate data from related sites and publications, etc.

Panel Discussion

The event concluded with a final panel discussion with lots of questions from the audience. Always a good sign that talks have been well received!

One interesting discussion revolved around using the ALPSP event itself as a case study for the application of Web 2.0 ideas. Many technical conferences, particularly in the US are already making use of blogs, wikis, shared calendaring, mapping, etc to enrich the conference experience both for attendees but also wanting to learn more about the event afterwards. (Like you, dear reader!)

Summary and Further Reading

In summary the event proved to be a useful discussion of Web 2.0 and its relevance for publishers.

Both Brian Kelly and myself have provided additional links and background reading via del.icio.us. We have both tagged up relevant websites and articles using the alpsp-2006-03 tag. The combined list is available from del.icio.us and also as an RSS feed.

If you subscribe to that feed then any additional links contributed by Brian, myself (or even you, dear reader!) will be delivered to your RSS reader of choice.

How Web 2.0 is that?!

posted by Leigh Dodds at 10:02 am


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