There has been a subtle yet incredibly important change with the way the Internet is used. It's been going on for at least a couple of years, but lately we're beginning to feel the enormous cumulative effects.
The result is a very different kind of Net - one that has even earned its own name: Web 2.0.
This isn't a separate Web. In fact, chances are you've been using it. Unlike Internet2, which is a separate entity, when people speak of Web 2.0 they're speaking of the way existing technologies are being used to create an entirely different online experience.
Others see it as a collection of sites and pages with well-labeled content (sometimes called "the Semantic Web"), so that information on one site is understandable to other sites. For example, if content on my page were labeled as breaking news on a particular subject, other sites that aggregate news content would know to grab it.
But there is a fairly common thread binding these visions of Web 2.0 - and it's the idea that defines the most important concept. Instead of treating the Web as millions of separate sites, each offering its own content, Web 2.0 operates as a gigantic collaborative effort, with everyone contributing directly to the community.
Think of Web 1.0 - today's Web - as a neighborhood where everyone's home or business is open to everyone else. You can walk into the Smiths' house and browse to see what's interesting.
In contrast, Web 2.0 is a single building, not separate houses, where everyone puts their things on the shelves for others to browse. It's labeled ("This appears courtesy of the Smiths"), but the content itself makes the community, rather than the separate buildings. The building is simply an aggregator.
It's a subtle but important distinction.
Tag, you're it
I have some photos on my website - you're welcome to browse. That's Web 1.0. But I also contribute to Flickr, as do thousands of other people. Flickr and its kin (such as Buzznet) create communities with content provided by their members. Because that content shares a framework - keywords in Flickr's case - you can browse through photos of a subject of your choosing.
In a way, you create ad hoc communities by using Flickr to look only at pictures of horses, for example. With Web 1.0, you could look at individuals' horse pictures, site by site. In Web 2.0, Flickr builds the framework for the community, aggregating all those equine images. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Another example: del.icio.us. Ostensibly a place to store lists of your favorite sites, it's evolved into a lot more. Del.icio.us lets you share your bookmarks using tags, similar to what Flickr does with images. If you find a great page about horses, you can give it a del.icio.us tag of "horses." Others who come to del.icio.us and search on that will find the most popular sites with that tag.
In a way, it's sort of a human-generated Google. Rather than computers using algorithms to process a search, del.icio.us relies on its users' contributions. Search on "RFID" and the results aren't based on how often the word appears in the text, or how many sites link to it, but how many users found it interesting.
Take that very example. A Google search on RFID has RFID Journal as its first hit. The same search on del.icio.us brings up How To Make A RFID Blocking Wallet. RFID Journal is number two on the del.icio.us list; an article on making an RFID-blocking wallet is 30th on Google's (and it's a different article).
It's not just about a better or different search engine. As the del.icio.us folks put it, "You begin building a collaborative repository of related information, driven by personal interests and creative organization."
It's a world populated by human interest.
Two other examples of Web 2.0 are almost too easy, but I'll mention them just to avoid e-mail on the subject: Wikipedia, the user-created and -edited encyclopedia, and P2P file sharing via protocols like BitTorrent. Both use the power of the community, not individual site owners, to create a 'product.'
And sites like the aforementioned Writely word processor do more than let you use a Web-based application to do office work. They also let you easily share and collaborate on projects - again, using the Web to create a community, even if a small one.
What's mine is yours
What does all this mean to the nature of the Web and how we use and share information? How does it change the notion of "content"? Or copyright?
Owners still own, creators still create, and both are acknowledged for their roles. Both retain some control over their creations; both can make money from them. But the default is changing. The expectation will be that content is shared. It does not become community property but the concept of limited sharing ("only you and you can listen to this song") is deteriorating quickly in the digital age. It has to.
Web 2.0 didn't cause this sea change. It's a feedback loop. The seeds of change were planted with the first message boards and blogs, when people came together in communities. Web 2.0-esque applications came out of that, and accelerated the change as the Flickrs and Technoratis and del.icio.uses of the world caught on.
What the end result is, I don't know. (I don't know that there is an end result.) But I can clearly see that the future of "content" - and the future of creativity - lies with all of us, not each of us.