Which Came First, RSS or Web 2.0?

One of the tasks that Richard and I are currently taking on is how to describe the changing Web. It’s one of the more hairy chicken/egg problems I’ve encountered. On the one hand, we have a whole bunch of successful technologies like RSS, XHTML, WSDL, REST, and web services like Google Search, Hotmail, and browser […]

One of the tasks that Richard and I are currently taking on is how to describe the changing Web. It’s one of the more hairy chicken/egg problems I’ve encountered.

On the one hand, we have a whole bunch of successful technologies like RSS, XHTML, WSDL, REST, and web services like Google Search, Hotmail, and browser plugins. Over the last couple years, these have proven to be rock solid: people are using them.

On the other hand, we have some possible reasons why people are using these things. Is it because they’re simple, or because they’re compelling enough for people to figure them out? Or are they what Clay Shirky would call a “forced move”?

I’ve always seen the amazing growth of RSS as a response to information overload. There are simply too many sites spilling good content that we gladly adopt a technology that helps us process them all more efficiently. But this is an easy case.

What about the success of Amazon? What about the success of Gmail? These are more complicated issues, and a clear-cut answer isn’t always possible. But when you’re telling a story of how something happened, it’s good to not get too complicated…usually the technique involves holding to one or two causes as the main causes, and then claiming that those are the main drivers which made everything possible.

Dave Winer is indirectly addressing this problem in his response to Tim O’Reilly’s What is Web 2.0 article. He points out that these technologies were around before the dot-com downturn, which O’Reilly sees as the catalyst for Web 2.0.

So, the question is: Did the downturn choose these technologies, or were these technologies grabbing hold during the boom?

The answer, I think, is YES. I think they both can be right (not that they were really arguing). I see the technologies that Dave mentions as being a few of a hundred candidate technologies that, over time, live or die by the market conditions they live in. If people find them compelling, or a forced move, then they’ll use them. If people don’t find them to fit their needs, or their marketing stinks, or their development teams fight too much, or….etc, then they may die on the vine.

Part of me wants to simply say “this stuff just happened“.

When writing history, it is incredibly hard to come to any agreement because of all the factors involved. It’s also hard to know the motivations of people who are pushing one side of the debate. Think Republicans and John Kerry’s war medals – I daresay that a Republican couldn’t care two bits about Kerry’s war record now, but they sure wanted to write their own history last summer. (I’m not trying to start a political debate here, just giving an example of a group of people with a sudden burst of historical tendencies).

So, not only do we all have our own individual reasons for adopting technology, we all have different viewpoints of other people’s adoption.

For example, I don’t know how many times that I’ve heard someone talk about the “usability of Google’s Search page”. They claim that the simplicity of the home page is what makes Google successful. I strongly disagree with this notion. Google Search is #1 because their results are better than everyone else’s. But who knows? Maybe 1% of people used Google in the early days because of the simplicity of the home page. It’s entirely possible.

Now you can see my problem…if I’m going to choose a primary factor in Google’s success, is it OK to dismiss the “usability” of their home page, despite the assertions of a few folks?

I suppose it’s who’s telling the story, right?

Published: October 2nd, 2005

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