Web Words Of the Day

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, April 13, 2006

Quick, name this era -- the one the Internet is in right now.

"The Living Web," a Newsweek cover story proclaimed last week. "The Lego era," a New York Times article called it. Both compete with "Web 2.0," a phrase that peppers the conversations of geeks and venture capitalists involved in Web development.

This game of coining names for still-emerging technologies is getting out of hand. Since I'm not sure there is any such thing as "Web 2.0" or the "Living Web," I fear these neologisms are having the ironic effect of making it harder for people to understand what's really happening in an industry central to their lives.

This particular naming impulse is an attempt to capture many trends in one term -- the latest flavor of Web software, the creative new ways people are communicating and socializing online, and the fresh wave of start-ups offering new online services -- at time when the Internet is still evolving.

I first heard software engineers use "Web 2.0" to describe an emerging type of software in 2003, but its meaning was broadened after technology publisher Tim O'Reilly adopted the phrase and made it the title of an industry conference in October 2004.

If I had a nickel for every "Web 2.0" product pitch I've received since then, I could retire rich right now. It's frustrating, because I believe that behind "Web 2.0" are many important milestones in Internet evolution.

To be clear, my beef is with the idea of using one term to cover the whole shebang of what's happening online, not with the labels being hung on individual phenomena such as blogs and podcasts. I think those words provide useful mental handles for us all to grab hold of as new behaviors sweep the Internet.

But any way you look at it, this frenzy of linguistic creation is making it hard for people over 30 to keep up, much less senior citizens like my 85-year-old father. I knew cyber-lingo was spiraling out of control when he looked across the dinner table at me recently and asked, "What's the difference between a blog and a social network?"

Mind you, my media-addicted dad has never read a blog, much less written one, and his social network consists mainly of his Rotary Club. But he mastered the "blog" word a few years ago and was determined to do the same with this newer phrase he'd been hearing on TV, "social networking."

I told him I hated the phrase and then took a stab at illustrating it by describing the Internet's most popular "social-networking" hangout, MySpace, where people maintain blogs and link them into personal networks.

"Young people create personal-profile pages and publish photos and commentary there about themselves, Pop," I ventured. "Then they make connections with friends by adding links to their profiles on their own pages."

As Pop nodded, I realized we have entered a frustrating period when Internet buzzwords are flooding mainstream media way too fast. It's interesting how every new buzzword seems to take less time to go mainstream than previous ones, thanks to some of the very same publishing tools to which the terms refer.

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