Learning about Web 2.0 and Web Design

A former student writes:

I need to find a simple book that sort of explains the trends of Web 2.0. Nothing too techy, but something that would talk about what makes it special, what people are doing with 2.0, and the best ways to utilize its philosophies.  Basically, my company is
moving towards plenty of web work now that  I’m here (I’m the only
designer who can do Flash and web design), but  my bosses aren’t aware
of a lot of the new practices in modern web design. 
So I was hoping I could recommend a book for them to read that would help them get on track with modern web design and marketing. Does a book like this even exist?

With permission, I’ve posted the question here.

My first thought was Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, which
(as expressed in a Wired article first published in 2004) that the future of business will be indie and niche marketing, selling small numbers of lots of different things (think eBay and Amazon), rather than pushing huge numbers of identical products to mass audiences.

The concept of the long tail has its critics, including Guy Kawasaki’s “cynic’s checklist“, Lee Gomez, and some Slashdot threads. A typical observation: even when people have ample access to downloading niche content, the most heavily advertised, corporate-backed titles still make up the vast majority of what people want to download — even when they can download the indie content for free. (Thus, it seems that it’s the advertising that makes people want to pay for content, not the quality of the content. Of course, it may be that savvy marketers are good at spotting the few items in the slush pile that people will pay for, but either way, ready access to multiple alternatives has not made a big dent in people’s choices.)

A Harvard business prof asks, “Should You Invest in the Long Tail?”  And Anderson himself has been actively involved in the debate, occasionally conceding, usually  challenging the objections.
I’m a little worried that ”
The Long Tail” meme fits so well with the
open-source-information-wants-to-be-free-cant-we-all-get-along-look-another-viral-video-about-bunnies mantra that drives Wired magazine and the “Technology = Happiness” subculture that drove the dot-com silliness about a decade ago.   I was teaching a “Writing Electronic Texts” course when the dot-com boom was going bust, and I remember the students were disappointed and even angry when I told them that it was no longer a guarantee that simply knowing how to write HTML was a ticket to a secure job.  People (including me) are extremely reluctant to pay for online services, since we’ve been trained to think that, with just a little more searching, we’ll find someone who’s willing to give away the service we want (in the hopes of selling some other service to us).

Huffington Post made such a big splash a few years ago, largely because it had some celebrity bloggers that people were curious to check out.  You want to know what actor John Cusack had to say about the death of Hunter S. Thompson? I didn’t, but because I went to the site out of curiosity, I found out.  With that sheer volume of blogging, there was bound to be a few gems.  Still, the internet at large is so full of gems, I’m not sure that I want or need The Huffington Post’s brand name to tell me what’s worth looking at.  I’ve got my RSS feed of my favorite bloggers, and I have Google Alert searches that email me whenever a certain term comes up in the news or in blogs.  But I gather I’m fairly unusual in that sense. 
I was a
little surprised to see that celebrity in the mainstream media can translate so
easily to an audience in the blogosphere.

Here at Seton Hill University, individuals have asked for a blog, posted a few entries, and then gave up — not simply because nothing they wrote went viral and appeared on CNN, but also because they
realized that creating content for a blog is hard work. (I’ve attended plenty of conference presentations given by scholars who tried blogging for a semester, and were disappointed because their students still treated it like homework.)

Still, just because the “Long Tail” is a meme does not mean it isn’t thought-provoking, useful, and intersting, so I’d expect to hear more of it.  The time we spend watching/reading/listening to indie-produced content — even if we don’t spend money on it — is time we don’t spend on conglomerate-produced material.   We do, of course, regularly encounter corporate shills as part of the process of searching for the indie content. (You do know
that Google owns YouTube, so with every search for Fred you’re helping the Google’s black helicopters find you).   We’re going to see more of this online conglomeration. 

Nobody really *makes* big money in a peer-to-peer used book market, but the members save a lot of money collectively if they have the choice of participating in a market that offers them used textbooks at a reasonable price. That’s not something that will ever register as “a good thing” if you’re in the
book-selling business, but it’s a very real phenomenon.

Recently my students (mostly English majors in a “Writing for the Internet” class, with no particular experience in either marketing or design) have high praise for Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, a web-design book that doesn’t focus on “How do I make a link change color when I mouse over it,” but rather asks more general questions such as, “How can we tell whether the reader will know what that link is for?” I pointed out to my students that the “me” in “Don’t Make Me Think” isn’t them, it’s their
readers/users.  (Maybe Krug should have used the Scrubbing Bubbles slogan — “We
Think Hard, So You Won’t Have To.”) 
It came out a few years ago, but is still perfectly
The actual stuff he talks about in the book
is pretty basic, but the careful description of the process of listening to users was eye-opening. Most of my students accepted, very early on, that my opinion on what makes a good website is just one of many possible views, and they understood that, if they don’t want to take my advice, then they are free to get users from their target demographics to offer alternate opinions. 

Even though my students were very familiar with online culture, the book’s corporate examples didn’t leave much room for personal expression or creativity that deliberately plays with and works against an web visitor’s expectation of a commercial website; when students encountered those experimental web texts, some were fascinated, but most were frustrated.  I don’t mind asking students to look at texts that challenge them, but next time I should probably try to find an article that deliberately walks them through a non-conformist website, the way I’d walk them through an e. e. cummings poem at the start of a unit on modernism.

For bare-knuckle advocacy of the useful over the sweet (see dulce et utile), the best online resource remains Jakob Nielsen’s
alertbox column
.  The boxy, un-flashy Alertbox is the Strunk and White of the web design world, focusing on the fundamental building blocks of online interfaces.