web 2.0 is easy to make fun of and god knows there’s a lot of stuff to make fun of but it really has represented a fundamental shift in the way which we build software that is significant and important behind all the hype:
Rich web apps: Building applications on the web changes how software developers develop. Even during the web1.0 app days, people were going on about how “application service providers” would be the next big thing but the technology just wasn’t there yet. Upgrading desktop applications is a pain and update cycles are in the months if not years. AJAX/web applications can be updated in just a matter of days or even hours. This isn’t just about speed, it changes your entire approach towards software design. Before, companies had to essentially make a blind guess as to what they should build and then put it out there and hope for the best. Now, what we’re seeing is companies producing just the bare bones of a product and then using the web to monitor very closely what the product develops into and creating more organically grown apps. Instead of needlessly bloated applications which do nothing well, the best of today’s apps are focused on what people actually want and need.
falling cost of innovation: If you started an internet startup in 2001 and failed, you burned through $10m worth of venture capital funds, if you start a startup today and fail, you have an extra $20k on your credit card debt. People are much more free to try wacky stuff and experiment when they’re not beholden to investors and the sheer number of people going at it means that theres going to be some really innovative and neat stuff coming out.
social networking: Social networking is huge, it’s literally changed the way that teens live. Something like 80% of all american teens are on either myspace or facebook, that’s absolutely astounding. When has there ever been an 80% penetration into any market? especially one that only took 4 years? Social networking sites change the way that we communicate and are aware of each other as fundamentally as email did. New services like twitter are only accelerating this trend and it will be interesting to see where this goes but this is most definitely not just a fad.
crowdsourcing: I like the description of crowdsourcing as “artificial artificial intelligence”. By using reasonably dumb algorithms and the judicious application of human intelligence on a mass scale, we can solve some really cool problems. Check out some of Luis Von Ahn’s work on ESP Game and peekaboom to see what’s possible.
mashups: Mashups are novel ways of combining the best bits of different web 2.0 applications and data to produce something new and novel. Ever since people moved to GUI interfaces and abandoned Unix style piping, applications have never had a good way of talking to each other. That means that if the application you were using didn’t suit your needs exactly, you were out of luck. It would be like building a table with a combination saw/screwdriver/lathe/bottle opener/hammer. Maybe the hammer is great but the saw is kind of dull. What mashups allow is now one company can focus on producing a great saw and another company can focus on making great hammers and you can combine the two and come up with something neat.
Geotagging: Researcher Danah Boyd believes that this is moving into web 3.0 but I’m going to put it here. Once ubiquitous GPS & RFID comes about, there can be some exciting things to do with place based applications. Everyone’s been crowing on about the “find me all italian restaurants within 500m of me” from my cellphone scenario since web1.0 but I think there’s going to be some much more interesting things to come out of it, especially when it becomes integrated with social networking. Some of this is already happening in Korea and Japan but expect the US to be one of the last places to get it because of how primitive the cell phone network is there.
Wisdom of the crowds: This is what you seem to be talking about in the OP and this is certainly one giant facet of web 2.0. Everything from digg to wikipedia is a giant experiment in trying to prove that the collective wisdom of many, if properly harnessed, can surpass that of carefully chosen gatekeepers. And even if it’s not better, it’s most certainly going to be of much higher volume which brings me to…
The long tail: The explosion of content on the fringes. Amazon has more books than Borders, Wikipedia has more articles than Britannica, Youtube has more video content than ABC, flickr has more stock photography than any stock photography company, livejournal has published more words than HarperCollins. Who’s interested in all that crap? Probably only 1 - 100 people usually. But chances are, you’ll likely be part of that >100 person demographic a lot of the time.
A lot of what I’ve pointed out can seem extremely silly on the surface and is unfortunately saddled with a bunch of buzzword laden terms (although I am grudgingly impressed by how many of them were coined by wired writers). But behind the hype, these are some of the things I think have real substance and the potential to make lasting impressions.