In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Web 2.0

  • Introduction
  • Popular Origins

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Communication Web 2.0
C.W. Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0072


For the layperson, the phrase “Web 2.0” refers to online websites, such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, along with digital practices, such as blogging and podcasting. For scholars of communication, technology, journalistic practice, and digital culture, however, Web 2.0 is a contested concept. Of apparently tremendous popular importance, Web 2.0 is considered by many academics to be little more than a successful marketing term that both obscures and overinflates certain social changes under the guise of business-friendly buzzwords. Web 2.0 is thus a concept burdened by traditional academic skepticism toward pop terminology, fierce debates about the agency of technology vis-à-vis other sociotechnical forces, and critical attitudes that see a deep injustice to the deployment of digital-utopian terminology in the service of capital. At the same time, however, the social trends uneasily encapsulated in the language of Web 2.0 appear to be of tremendous, if ill-defined, importance. Since the late 1990s a dramatic shift has occurred in the relationship between the producers and the consumers of symbolic goods, particularly in the online realm. This article attempts to strike a difficult balance in providing an understanding of Web 2.0 on its own terms, outlining the genealogy of the concept and giving insights into areas of digital culture and content creation to which the discourse on Web 2.0 at least partially refers. This discussion also goes beyond traditional bibliographic entries, such as articles in scholarly journals and academic books, to include blog posts and industry white papers. In effect, these white papers and manifestos are treated as “primary source documents.” At least until the scholarship on Web 2.0 solidifies into a more coherent form, some mastery of this primary source material will be essential. This article unfolds, first, by examining the history of the Web 2.0 concept and some of its earliest articulations. It then backtracks to look at earlier examples of so-called user-generated content, particularly those that problematize the historical understanding of Web 2.0 as a primarily technological phenomenon. Finally, it turns to an overview of the manner in which Web 2.0 concepts have been diffused throughout various scholarly domains, such as education, political economy, journalism studies, science studies, and others.

Popular Origins

At the core, arguments about Web 2.0 make the basic claim that digital technology has allowed media consumers to create, share, and remix “content” in new ways and that this creative ability has fundamentally transformed the production of symbolic goods. In going beyond this fairly simple claim, however, it might be helpful to invoke Friedrich Nietzsche. For as Nietzsche wrote in the second essay of Genealogy of Morals in 1897, “The entire history of . . . a practice can by this process be seen as a continuing chain of signs of constantly new interpretations and adjustments, whose causes do not even need to be connected to each other—in some circumstances they rather follow and take over from each other by chance” (p. 513). This philosophical argument about the contingency of social practices and the contested nature of origins certainly applies to Web 2.0. The list of vaguely defined terms that often function as a stand-in for Web 2.0 includes “user-generated content,” “networked peer production,” “citizen media,” “produsage” (creation of shared content in a networked, participatory environment), “presumption” (involvement by both producers and consumers in a product or service), “collaborative creation,” the “commons” (resources owned in common or shared by communities), the “social web,” and so on. The origins of Web 2.0 as a technical term and as a buzzword can be found in the writings and conferences of the publisher and digital guru Tim O’Reilly (O’Reilly 2005a, O’Reilly 2005b, and O’Reilly 2006). In these articles O’Reilly first distinguishes between the days of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. He argues that the primary difference between these two web “eras” is that Web 1.0 was the result of the emergence of the Internet itself as a content platform (as opposed to software companies acting as a platform) and Web 2.0 was the result of a new paradigm that depended on harnessing the power of networked users, who themselves built content value and thus created financial success. O’Reilly here echoes the more philosophical musings of Kelly 2005. An example of the rapid application of Web 2.0 concepts to nonsoftware domains, such as journalism, can be seen in Gilmor 2004 and Shirky 2008.

  • Gilmor, Dan. 2004. We the media: Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people. Sebastapol, CA: O’Reilly.

    An interesting example of the manner in which popular discussion about Web 2.0 (originally about software) quickly spread to other domains of symbolic goods production that were in the process of digitization. Indeed, it is this application of Web 2.0 rhetoric to nearly all domains of communication that has made it such a difficult term to analyze.

  • Kelly, Kevin. 2005. We are the web. Wired 13.8 (August).

    The digital guru Kevin Kelly makes a grandiose and sweeping point about the explosion of user-produced content and digitally enabled collaboration. In this brief magazine piece, Kelly argues that the web is ultimately creating a machine-human hybrid at the level of cultural production, leading to an exponential increase in social knowledge and participation.

  • O’Reilly, Tim. 2005a. Not 2.0?. O’Reilly Radar.

    O’Reilly’s earliest attempt to theorize the new nature of the Web 2.0 paradigm is somewhat undeveloped. Nevertheless, the argument makes reference to two key points: the idea that the value of the web lies in digital service, not software, and the notion that capturing user engagement is the key to establishing value on this emerging web.

  • O’Reilly, Tim. 2005b. What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. O’Reilly Radar.

    A lengthier version of the initial Web 2.0 article that O’Reilly posted a month earlier (O’Reilly 2005a). This version of the article is for its part hampered by its reliance on technological examples that in retrospect seem somewhat diffuse (and many of which have since vanished). However, the history of the term “Web 2.0” is directly addressed, and a push-back is made against those who claim the term is merely a branding exercise.

  • O’Reilly, Tim. 2006. Web 2.0 compact definition: Trying again. O’Reilly Radar.

    This is the most refined version of the initial Web 2.0 argument, the core of which has now been firmly and clearly stated: the web is a platform for user service and engagement, the digital nature of the web-as-platform leads to an increase in end-user content production, and the value of this consumer production can be captured by organizations that, in O’Reilly’s words, “Don’t fight the Internet.”

  • Shirky, Clay. 2008. Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin.

    A classic—and highly accessible—argument about how Web 2.0 and social media technologies affect society. Shirky (drawing on Yochai Benkler and other media theorists of the “legal-economics” school) argues that collaborative technologies have reduced the transaction costs affiliated with social action to near zero. This, argues Shirky, affects the mechanics of group formation and consequentially impacts many other areas of social life.

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