Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Monday, October 16, 2006

Blogs, Wikis, Podcasting, Social Networks And File Sharing: How The Web Is Transforming Itself - Part I

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To date, one of the main aims of the World Wide Web has been to provide users with information. In addition to private homepages, large professional information providers, including news services, companies, and other organisations have set up web-sites.

Photo credit: Fort Photo

With the development and advance of recent technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasting and file sharing this model is challenged and community-driven services are gaining influence rapidly. These new paradigms obliterate the clear distinction between information providers and consumers. The lines between producers and consumers are blurred even more by services such as Wikipedia, where every reader can become an author, instantly.

This paper presents an overview of a broad selection of current technologies and services: blogs, wikis including Wikipedia and Wikinews, social networks such as Friendster and Orkut as well as related social services like, file sharing tools such as Flickr, and podcasting. These services enable user participation on the Web and manage to recruit a large number of users as authors of new content.

It is argued that the transformations the Web is subject to are not driven by new technologies but by a fundamental mind shift that encourages individuals to take part in developing new structures and content.

The evolving services and technologies encourage ordinary users to make their knowledge explicit and help a collective intelligence to develop.

1. Introduction

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Photo credit:,,,,,,

The World Wide Web has grown into a truly world-wide computer-based media network. Previously, most information was, by and large, offered by professional information providers such as companies advertising their products and services, organisations or news services. In addition, private users on the web had the option of establishing personal homepages as well. However, technological obstacle - complicated tools, lack of infrastructure and technical background knowledge - prevented many users from producing web-pages.

The infrastructure of successful corporate web-sites often relies on content management systems. These environments take their organizational structures from traditional media such as newspapers or television channels, where authors, editors, an editor-in-chief, etc. are in charge.

Hence it can be argued that, to date, the Web has mapped structures from the physical world to the hypertext domain. It has not been able to deliver other qualities than traditional media; the World Wide Web has been far from being interactive, and users rarely had a chance to participate.

Recently, however, the Web has undergone changes.

Although it has gone partly unnoticed, these transformations are profound as they give ordinary users ability to get more involved in the content creation process. As a result, community-driven initiatives such as blogs, wikis and podcasts have emerged.

This paper gives an overview of a number of popular community-based technologies and services. The following sub-sections (which will be published here in seven parts - See the list of upcoming topics at the end of the article) detail the nature of self-organising systems and briefly outline current developments on the Internet.

In the next part will introduce blogs, a form of web-based journals. The subsequent seven parts will address wikis, types of collaborative content development systems, and two particular instances of wikis: Wikipedia and Wikinews.

While blogs and wikis allow communities to generate mainly textual content, podcasting which will be also addressed in a separate article, introduces a way for users to distribute audio content. In another article issue file sharing tools are covered including Flickr used by communities for sharing documents such as photos. Finally due coverage is given to social networks, as communication and meeting platforms for communities and friends are presented. We will also discuss the impact of the services introduced and while giving an outlook on further developments.

1.1. Self-Organising Structures

Photo credit: Walmink

Oftentimes it seems to be necessary to introduce hierarchies in order to make large amounts of data and complex structures manageable and comprehensible. Hence most information systems, as computer-based environments or systems in the engineering sciences in general, have hierarchical structures. Examples are filesystems, web-sites, newsgroups and e-Mail systems.

Daily life, however, has numerous examples of systems that do not have a clearly defined hierarchy and follow the rules of organised complexity that may yield emerging structures. Examples include the formation of neighbourhoods and cities, the growth of plants, and the natural balance of ecosystems.

Probably the most prominent examples of a self-organising systems, however, are ant colonies. Although every colony has its queen, the term queen is misleading because she is not a leader of the colony. The ant queen lays the eggs, but she does not communicate any particular orders to the workers. They communicate with each other using a vocabulary of about ten to twenty pheromones. In addition to this, they are believed to have a small set of "built-in" rules they follow in order to be able to complete tasks including building a nest, protecting it, and foraging.

Every ant starts the day with a particular task such as collecting food. When many foragers return to the nest with food, ants performing other tasks will also start foraging. ("Today is a good day for collecting food"). When, on the other hand, many foragers return without food, the ants in the nest will continue doing their current work, and foragers will, for instance, go back into the nest and remain idle. ("Today is not a good day for finding food, try again tomorrow").

Although these simple decisions foragers make might not be ideal, and individual ants make wrong decisions, the large number of ants in colonies assures that decisions are ultimately correct. This can be explained as a variation of the principle of evolution that holds true for a sufficiently large amount of time and a critical mass of individuals.
Another remarkable aspect of ant colonies is that they change their behaviour over the course of generations. Foragers of a three or four year old colony, for example, are likely to fight over food with ants from neighbouring colonies. In contrast to this, ants of older colonies will steer clear of foreign foragers on their encounters. On subsequent days, foragers will avoid the corresponding region altogether and attempt to find food in different areas.

This change in behaviour is particularly astonishing since, apart from the queen, ants do not live for more than a year. The ant queen, however, is unable to pass any knowledge on to the workers. Although the behaviour of single ants seems to remain unchanged, the entire colony becomes more mature towards the end of its lifetime.

1.2. Recent Developments on the Internet

Photo credit: Vasil Vasilev

Technological advancements in recent years have yielded systems with entirely new qualities. Although similar applications have existed in the past, the new developments have amalgamated distinct features of their "precursors" and enable entirely novel applications.

The common characteristic, which all these systems share, is that the approach is "bottom-up" rather than "top-down". This means that in these environments content and structure are not determined by professional, corporate information providers. Both content and structure are defined by the individuals of the community. This facilitates self-organisation in these systems and makes the emergence of advanced structures possible.

The result is a system where the knowledge of the community is "larger" than the sum of knowledge and experience of all individuals. For this approach to work, a critical mass (of users in the community) is required.

This requirement can be seen as an analogy to ant colonies. Individual ants may be unable to build a nest and defend it, may be incapable of providing all fellow-ants with food, etc. With a large number of ants, however, they become more than their sum--they form a community, an ant colony.

End of Part I of 7
Next part: Introduction to Blogs

Originally published as "The Transformation of the Web: How Emerging Communities Shape the Information we Consume", on by Josef Kolbitsch (Graz University of Technology, Austria), and Hermann Maurer (Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria) on August, 2006

About the authors

Josef Kolbitsch


Josef Kolbitsch holds a PHD in computer science from the Institute of Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria. He has conducted Several projects in the area of web-based database systems, information processing and information management systems for organisations including the Association of Telematic Engineers, the Association of Austrian Business Engineers, Graz University of Technology, and Lebenshilfe Steiermark. In addition he has been the Software trainer and personal technical trainer for Berufsf├Ârderungsinstitut Steiermark and Symantec Corporation(Auckland Branch), software license manager for Graz University of Technology, and an honorary research assistant at the Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Contact Information: josef.kolbitsch(at)

Hermann Maurer


Hermann Maurer holds a PHD in Mathematics from the University of Vienna. He has been teaching at various universities since 1966, and has been the director of the Research Institute for Applied Information Processing of the Austrian Computer Society 1983-1998; chairman of Institute for Information Processing and Computer Supported New Media since 1988, director of the Institute for Hypermedia Systems of Joannum research since 1990, director of the AWAC (Austrian Web Application Center) of the ARCS (Austrian Research Centers) 1997-2000, member of the board of OCG (├-sterreische Computergesellschaft) 1979-2003, founder and scientific advisor of the KNOW Center (K+ Center), the first research centre on Knowledge Management in Austria. Since January 2004 Hermann Maurer is the first dean of the newly formed Faculty for Computer Science at the Graz University of Technology.

Contact Information: hmaurer(at)

Josef Kolbitsch and Hermann Maurer -
Reference: Journal of Unkiversal Computer Science [ Read more ]
Readers' Comments    
2006-10-24 10:19:58

Robert Dean

I've set up a wiki community site focused making stock trading free and organized.

check it out, let me know what you think! :o)

2006-10-18 06:54:48


A podcast is a multimedia file distributed over the Internet using syndication feeds, for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. The term as originally coined by Ben Hammersley in an article in the Guardian on February 12, 2004 [1], was meant as a portmanteau of "broadcasting" and "iPod".

The term podcast, like 'radio', can mean both the content and the method of delivery. The host or author of a podcast is often called a podcaster. Though podcasters' web sites may also offer direct download or streaming of their content, a podcast is distinguished from other digital audio formats by its ability to be downloaded automatically using software capable of reading feeds like RSS or Atom.

A podcast is generally analogous to a recorded television or radio series.

The content provider begins by making a file (for example, an MP3 audio file) available on the Internet. This is usually done by posting the file on a publicly-available webserver; however, BitTorrent trackers also have been used, and it is not technically necessary that the file be publicly accessible. The only requirement is that the file be accessible through some known URI (a general-purpose Internet address). This file is often referred to as one episode of a podcast.

The content provider then acknowledges the existence of that file by referencing it in another file known as the feed. The feed is a list of the URLs by which episodes of the show may be accessed. This list is usually published in RSS format (although Atom can also be used), which provides other information, such as publish dates, titles, and accompanying text descriptions of the series and each of its episodes. The feed may contain entries for all episodes in the series, but is typically limited to a short list of the most recent episodes, as is the case with many news feeds. Standard podcasts consist of a feed from one author. More recently multiple authors have been able to contribute episodes to a single podcast feed using concepts such as public podcasting and social podcasting.

The content provider posts the feed on a webserver. The location at which the feed is posted is expected to be permanent. This location is known as the feed URI (or, perhaps more often, feed URL). The content provider makes this feed URI known to the intended audience.

A consumer uses a type of software known as an aggregator, sometimes called a podcatcher or podcast receiver, to subscribe to and manage their feeds.

2006-10-16 10:13:53


I've been on the Internet for quite a few years but have had a feeling lately that I don't quite follow or understand what's going on - and something is really going on!!
This is so helpful - thank you!

posted by on Monday, October 16 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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