Web 2.0, it may be a buzz word for innovations in web platforms but according to Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, Inc., it is also a real tangible phenomenon that is changing the way we interact with the internet. Although the use of the term “Web 2.0” to coin this evolution of the internet is new to me, the actual web platform it describes is something I have been fully immersed in for years without even realizing it!
Take last Thursday night as an example, I was sitting in the living room with three other people between us we had two versions of the original iPad, a Mac book, an iPad mini, and several iPhones; our goal was to consort our applications and magazines subscriptions to share what we could with each other for free. It was pretty amazing, wirelessly we were able to display information from our screens onto my flat screen television and from there we decided whether or not we wanted particular apps from each other. At the time this type of sharing seemed almost too good to be true – through the app store we were sharing access to apps on different devices for free. I had to ask myself why Apple would let us do this when in the past it has been so very difficult to share music from iTunes. After learning more about Web 2.0 I have my answer, it is because the company has more to gain from learning about how each of us uses and shares their applications than it has to loose.
You see with Web 2.0 users add value to applications and online services. By compiling user data companies are able to improve on their applications in real time and the more people who use them the better they become. The ability for us to share resources is partnered with the ability of those providers to track our use, which when aggregated properly can result in competitive advantages about how to better deliver services and achieve greater returns. This type of collective activity also greatly benefits the user; we are now part of the collaborative process, and I for one love when Apple provides updates to fix annoying glitches in their apps.
Tracking user data and applying it to services is not new, Air Miles has been doing it for years using postal codes and shoppers’ data to identify purchasing trends. But what Web 2.0 brings to the table is a new platform to collect data on an even border scheme which means companies will stand to generate an even greater profit. Web 2.0 is all about harnessing the collective intelligence of users in a latent fashion that does not require the extra work for the user or even their informed consent. The subversive fashion of data collection means that many (if not most) users have no idea that this is taking place. For example an app that asks to use your current location, although it has no bearing on its function, is gathering that information for other reasons. In fact O’Reilly notes that the most successful Web 2.0 applications have created inclusive defaulted settings for aggregating user data which is automatically collected as a side effect of ordinary use.
So what does this mean for the average user? Are you uncomfortable with the reality that many sites and applications are tracking your use OR do you find that these capabilities are a reason to become a more avid user; as it ultimately results in a better experience?
For those who cannot see the forest for the trees take a moment to check the policies of your favourite application providers, you may need to limit your internet usage. Are you on Facebook? I would argue that it is one of the most intrusive examples of collecting data as it tracks personal use, comments, and associates it with explicit user identifiers –an issue that I believe will be compounded with their new Facebook Graph Search.
And for those who appreciate the beauty of Web 2.0, who are excited by the opportunity to be co-creators of web content and are willing to trade data for better services; where should the line be drawn on data collection? And what kind of privacy standards should be guaranteed for protecting the identity/privacy of users? I personally do not mind that my data is being tracked by providers to improve their services but I hope when the information extracted it is washed from personal identifiers and is held in a secure space. On the other hand, if data collection is taking place on applications where my name or even picture is being associated with that information I become uncomfortable. I also do not like the idea of companies being able to sell this information to third parties for profit and wonder about the ethical implications that arise when user data that is generated in an open collaborative fashion becomes proprietary and unavailable to those who contributed to its existence.