“Web 2.0” is one of the new buzzwords in Silicon Valley. Proponents say that “Web 2.0” is the next step in the development of the Web, moving farther in the direction of democracy, openness, and participation. Some cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “a new phrase to suck money out of venture capitalists,” and other cynics say that “Web 2.0” should be translated as “the news media are finally paying attention to Web development again.” The cynics are probably right, and at the same time there are exciting things happening on the Web that churches should pay attention to: blogging of course, and social networking, and tags. Let’s take a look at how “Web 2.0” might pertain to development of church Web sites.
According to Tim O’Reilly, one of the chief proponents of the term, “Web 2.0” is a set of seven “design patterns,” or ways to think about designing a Web site. [You can find O’Reilly’s seven design patterns for “Web 2.0” here.] So how might these secven design patterns apply to creating church Web sites?
What most interests me about “Web 2.0” is O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” Most church Web sites do not allow users to add value. And in the few instances where church Web sites have tried to make it easy for church members to, for example, post committee information to the site, there has been little or no response. Yet at the same time, the religious blogosphere has become incredibly active, and social networking Web sites have also seen activity by religious folk — so what’s going on?
Put it this way: a typical church Web site is not LiveJournal or Blogger or del.icio.us. We occupy a different place in the Web. We should be thinking of church Web sites in terms of another one of O’Reilly’s principles, which points out that small sites make up the bulk of the internet’s content, content that “Web 2.0” applications are going to reach out to. O’Reilly calls this the “long tail” of the Web — and your church Web site is part of that “long tail.”
As small niche sites, the question we should be asking is this: what can we offer that makes it worthwhile for a big site to reach out to us? Most church Web sites will probably look no farther than their sermon archives as their primary store of unique, niche information. But churches have other niche information to offer: local theology, local history, local social justice information, genealogical data, biographical data, architectural information, social justice education, etc. Which makes me ask myself: is it enough to offer sermons? Perhaps a better question is: what unique data or information can we offer that will attract potential newcomers and further our mission in the world?
Let me go back to O’Reilly’s idea that “users add value.” O’Reilly also recognizes that most Web sites find that their users simply don’t bother adding data or information. O’Reilly concludes that Web sites should “…set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.” I think of this as building in feedback loops to ongoing development of the church Web site. Because church Web sites are tiny, and serve tiny communities, much of the feedback is going to come, not through the Web site itself, but via face-to-face contact or via email messages. The principle here is to continuously search for ways to include feedback loops — with the assumption that the church Web site is not static but is constantly under devcelopment.
Finally, O’Reilly points out a technological fact that churches should consider: “The PC is no longer the only access device for internet applications, and applications that are limited to a single device are less valuable than those that are connected.” How does this apply to churches? The example that comes immediately to my mind is the newcomer who, while driving to your church, looks up driving directions on her cell phone. Which implies that we should start thinking about church Web sites that are readable on cell phone screens.
So is “Web 2.0” just another buzzword, or is it a radical new way of thinking about the Web? From the point of view of church Web sites, I think it’s both. On the one hand, it’s just another high-tech buzzword that comes with the usual array of acronyms like AJAX and PHP — stuff that mostly doesn’t apply to church Web sites. On the other hand, it’s a radical reminder that Web sites should not be static, one-way communication — that church Web sites should represent the ideals of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, who wanted to create a method to connect people together in meaningful, democratic, non-hierarchical ways.