The latest issue of Discover on the stands is their 25th anniversary issue, and so for my column this month my wonderful editor Dave Grogan asked me to do a kind of "state of the internet" piece. I decided to take a look at the premise of Web 2.0 that has been tossed around a lot over the last few years, without getting too bogged down in the details (i.e., what's the difference between Web 2.0 and the semantic web?) For most readers here, I suspect that the example scenario I give will be old news, but the more interesting stuff comes at the end. I think this is a useful way to talk about what's happening online right now, whatever you want to call it.
The difference between this Web 2.0 model and the previous one is directly equivalent to the difference between a rain forest and a desert. One of the primary reasons we value tropical rain forests is because they waste so little of the energy supplied by the sun while running massive nutrient cycles. Most of the solar energy that saturates desert environments gets lost, assimilated by the few plants that can survive in such a hostile climate. Those plants pass on enough energy to sustain a limited number of insects, which in turn supply food for the occasional reptile or bird, all of which ultimately feed the bacteria. But most of the energy is lost.
A rain forest, on the other hand, is such an efficient system for using energy because there are so many organisms exploiting every tiny niche of the nutrient cycle. We value the diversity of the ecosystem not just as a quaint case of biological multiculturalism but because the system itself does a brilliant job of capturing the energy that flows through it. Efficiency is one of the reasons that clearing rain forests is shortsighted: The nutrient cycles in rain forest ecosystems are so tight that the soil is usually very poor for farming. All the available energy has been captured on the way down to the earth.
Think of information as the energy of the Web's ecosystem. Those Web 1.0 pages with their crude hyperlinks are like the sun's rays falling on a desert. A few stragglers are lucky enough to stumble across them, and thus some of that information might get reused if one then decides to e-mail the URL to a friend or to quote from it on another page. But most of the information goes to waste. In the Web 2.0 model, we have thousands of services scrutinizing each new piece of information online, grabbing interesting bits, remixing them in new ways, and passing them along to other services. Each new addition to the mix can be exploited in countless new ways, both by human bloggers and by the software programs that track changes in the overall state of the Web. Information in this new model is analyzed, repackaged, digested, and passed on down to the next link in the chain. It flows.