Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

25 February 2011

Clarity needed around Web 3.0

Clark @ 6:07 AM

I like ASTD; they offer a valuable service to the industry in education, including reports, webinars, very good conferences (despite occasional hiccups, *cough* learning styles *cough*) that I happily speak at and even have served on a program committee for.   They may not be progressive enough for me, but I’m not their target market.  When they come out with books like The New Social Learning, they are to be especially lauded.  And when they make a conceptual mistake, I feel it’s fair, nay a responsibility, to call them on it.  Not to bag them, but to try to achieve a shared understanding and move the industry forward.  And I think they’ve made a mistake that is problematic to ignore.

A recent report of theirs, Better, Smarter, Faster: How Web 3.0 will Transform Learning in High-Performing Organizations, makes a mistake in it’s extension of a definition of Web 3.0, and I think it’s important to be clear.  Now, I haven’t read the whole report, but they make a point of including their definition in the free Executive Summary (which I *think* you can get too, even if you’re not a member, but I can’t be sure).  Their definition:

Web 3.0 represents a range of Internet-based services and technologies that include components such as natural language search, forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning, software agents that make recommendations to users, and the application of context to content.

This I almost completely agree with.  The easy examples are Netflix and Amazon recommendations: they don’t know you personally, but they have your purchases or rentals, and they can compare that to a whole bunch of other anonymous folks and create recommendations that can get spookily good.  It’s done by massive analytics, there’s no homunculus hiding behind the screen cobbling these recommendations together, it’s all done by rules and statistics.

I’ve presented before my interpretation of Web 3.0, and it is very much about using smart internet services to do, essentially system-generated content (as opposed to 1.0 producer-generated content and 2.0 user-generated content).  The application of context to content could be a bit ambiguous, however, and I’d mean that to be dynamic application of context to content, rather than pre-designed solutions (which get back to web 1.0).

As such, their first component of their three parts includes the semantic web.  Which, if they’d stopped at, would be fine. However, they bring in two other components. The second:

  • the Mobile Web, which will allow users to experience the web seamlessly as they move from one device to another, and most interaction will take place on mobile devices.

I don’t see how this follows from the definition. The mobile web is really not fundamentally a shift.  Mobile may be a fundamental societal shift, but just being able to access the internet from anywhere isn’t really a paradigmatic shift from webs 1.0 and 2.0. Yes, you can acccess produced content, and user-generated content from wherever/whenever, but it’s not going to change the content you see in any meaningful way.

They go on to the third component:

  • The third element is the idea of an immersive Internet, in which virtual worlds, augmented reality, and 3-D environments are the norm.

Again, I don’t see how this follows from their definition.  Virtual worlds start out as producer-generated content, web 1.0. Sims and games are designed and built a priori.  Yes, it’s way cool, technically sophisticated, etc, but it’s not a meaningful change. And, yes, worlds like Second Life let you extend it, turning it into web 2.0, but it’s still not fundamentally new.  We took simulations and games out of advanced technology for the conferences several years ago when I served.  This isn’t fundamentally new.

Yes, you can do new stuff on top of mobile web and immersive environments that would qualify, like taking your location and, say, goals and programmatically generating specific content for you, or creating a custom world and outcomes based upon your actions in the world from a model not just of the world, but of you, and others, and… whatever.  But without that, it’s just web 1.0 or 2.0.

And it’d be easy to slough this off and say it doesn’t matter, but ASTD is a voice with a long reach, and we really do need to hold them to a high standard because of their influence.  And we need people to be clear about what’s clever and what’s transformative.  This is not to say my definition is the only one, others have  interpretations that differ, but I think the convergent view is while it may be more than semantic web, it’s not evolutionary steps.  I’m willing to be wrong, so if you disagree, let me know.  But I think we have to get this right.


  1. I think in terms of the mobile web, we should remember that mobile devices are not merely passive but can detect their location. This can be used to generate location specific content, which, and I’m guessing here, may be what is meant by web 3.0 in a mobile context.

    Comment by Doug woods — 25 February 2011 @ 7:35 AM

  2. Doug, thanks for the clarification. Yes, if they’re doing on-the-fly generation of context-sensitive responses, that would likely qualify. It’s true I haven’t been able to read the full report, but the executive summary didn’t seem to make any such sort of distinction.

    Comment by Clark — 25 February 2011 @ 7:59 AM

  3. Clark, I really appreciate your post. I went to a session at ICE 2009 in which the presenter used Web 3.0 to mean almost exclusively virtual worlds. (Not ASTD’s fault directly, but I do think the organization would do well to lead the way in getting it right.) Web 3.0 doesn’t just mean “the next big fad” any more than Web 2.0 means “pop-ups with roundy corners”, and the people who know the difference really shouldn’t let this slide. And. Big organizations that purport to inform should first know better.

    Comment by Judy Unrein — 25 February 2011 @ 2:46 PM

  4. Hi Clark,

    As one of the authors of the report, I wanted to chime on this. Please get the full report if you can so you can see how the analysis was conducted. The executive summary just couldn’t do justice to the in-depth findings. One of the first things we did in this research was ask learning professionals and other experts how THEY defined Web 3.0. We started with a focus group and then, based input from that group, surveyed a large number of learning and HR professionals about the extent to which they consider various items as belonging to the Web 3.0 paradigm.

    I don’t want to make this response too long so I’ll ignore 3-D aspects of Web 3.0, only citing experts such as Dr. Tony O’Driscoll and his idea of the “immernet” as one of the reasons we polled learning professionals about whether this fits into the Web 3.0 paradigm. Instead, let’s focus on the mobile Web, which I think was one of the most interesting and, as you suggest, controversial findings of the report.

    It turned out that the mobile Web was the area which the largest percentage of respondents identified as part of Web 3.0. This surprised some of the people on research team, including myself, but the data are clear on this point. I’m accustomed to thinking about Web 3.0 in terms of semantic Web, etc., but this isn’t about what you or I think. It’s about what the practitioners believe. Can we really call them “right” or “wrong” in regard to a term such as Web 3.0, which is fast evolving and about which even the experts disagree?

    As we explored these findings, we discovered that the participants probably have made a good “collective-wisdom” point in regard to mobile tech. Mobile technologies are, in fact, quickly changing the way people approach the Web. You write, “Yes, you can access produced content, and user-generated content from wherever/whenever, but it’s not going to change the content you see in any meaningful way.”

    There are three responses to this. First, augmented reality apps, for example, are mainly restricted to mobile devices and help people learn information on the fly. These will grow increasingly powerful and useful over the next year or two. Another aspect of the mobile Web is the use of services such as Foursquare, which also helps people socialize and learn about one another in ways that conventional PC or laptop apps were never able to do.

    The second (and probably more arguable) part of my response is that the “wherever/whenever” aspect of the mobile is, in fact, a paradigm change all on its own. Web content is just starting to change as a result. We’re seeing the creation of new kinds of books and magazines online that are not, in the conventional sense, books or magazines at all. They’re something quite different, something for which we don’t even have a good name yet, something that is rapidly evolving in a new Cambrian explosion on the mobile Web. Can you see these new apps on your laptop? Maybe. But we wouldn’t have created them at all in a PC world.

    Finally, as we note in the report, mobile technologies are already expanding beyond smart phones and tablets, with companies such as BMW presenting ideas such as augmented reality goggles as the next way they’ll be extending the productivity of their mechanics and engineers.

    So, although I myself wouldn’t have viewed mobile technologies as a key part of Web 3.0 before we conducted the research, I now believe there’s a strong argument to be made that it is. Viva la revolucion.

    If you’d like to read more about my take on mobile tech, please go to http://markrvickers.com/2011/02/15/is-mobile-tech-going-to-transform-learning/

    Comment by Mark Vickers — 26 February 2011 @ 8:47 PM

  5. Mark, thanks *very* much for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. You raise interesting points. I’m not sure I agree with allowing folks to define web 3.0, instead of looking for the right conceptual basis, but you certainly cite emerging patterns in a convincing way.

    I agree that if systems are generating smart content for the context in your augmented reality examples, that *is* semantic web. I’m not sure I think the tablet version of content really is web 3.0, since it’s still designed by the publisher and isn’t really (at least to me) new. And I think augmented reality goggles for mechanics is really cool, but still not web 3.0.

    Still, I see where you’re coming from and I can see why you might want to consider some of this as web 3.0. I’ll have to ponder further. I do think mobile is a more fundamental change than I did a few years ago, and I look forward to reading your take. Thanks again for taking the time to respond and help me and readers understand how you made the distinctions that emerged in the report.

    Comment by Clark — 28 February 2011 @ 9:40 AM

  6. […] Web 3.0 Will Transform Learning In High-Performance Organizations – has started to widen the debate on just what Web 3.0 […]

    Pingback by So, What Is Web 3.0, Anyway? | The Reticulum — 2 March 2011 @ 11:18 AM

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