The Rise of the Multi-Player Web and Why Web 2.0 is Here to Stay

While investors seem to be going all in on Web3 at the moment, I’ve been noticing an interesting trend that has its roots firmly in the Web 2.0 era — namely the Multi-Player Web. Before exploring this trend in more detail, I thought it would be worth taking a quick step back to explore where it originated from.

Where it All Began

My first real experience with Web 2.0 happened a few years before Tim O’Reilly coined the term. I was sitting in the back of a SXSW presentation in the early 00s when a friend somewhere in the audience pinged me an iChat message. “Hey Andy, we’re taking collaborative notes using SubEthaEdit. Wanna join?”

I’d used SubEthaEdit, a slightly obscure text editor, before. Mostly for HTML/CSS coding, but I’d never used the collaboration feature. As I opened the file I saw around a dozen of my friends making notes together. Not just in this talk, but in various other talks around the venue. I was blown away. Up to that point editing had been a read only experience for me, and when you did share your thoughts on a forum or in the comments of a blog post, they were mostly asynchronous. So seeing people collaborate in real time was a revolution. 

At the time I thought this sort of collaboration was pretty cool. However it also felt like a bit of a gimmick. After all, other than developers, what normal people wanted or needed to collaborate online in realtime? Little did I know that this gimmick would shape the course of the Web for the next 10 years. 

The Read/Write Web

In 2005 tech publishing supremo Tim O’Reilly wrote a seminal article on the collaborative Web, and the term Web 2.0 was born. The idea was pretty simple. The previous version of the Web had primarily been read only (despite Tim Berners Lee, the founder of the Web, baking editing into the first browser, it never really took off), while this new version was much more collaborative and encouraged User Generated Content (UCG). Essentially the Web had moved from being read only to read/write. 

Of course back then there was a lot of debate around whether Web 2.0 was actually a thing, and there’s still confusion about the term today. 

Initially Web 2.0 was focussed on social media. However the emergence of Ajax (Asynchronous Javascript)—coined by my friend Jesse James Garrett—allowed developers to update portions of a page without refreshing the whole page. This allowed traditional media companies to pipe breaking news onto the page, and for social media companies like Twitter to update comments in realtime.

However the real value of Web 2.0 for me came not from a cool social media company, but from Google. Firstly you had products like Google Maps and their “slippy map” concept which loaded in new map tiles based on user interaction. Next you had Google Docs, which allowed multiple people to collaborate in a single doc together—essentially bringing my SubEthaEdit experience to the masses. 

The Plateaux of Productivity

Web 2.0 quickly made its way along the Gartner Hype cycle from the “The Peak of Inflated Expectations” to “The Trough of Disillusionment” where it stayed for a number of years. The term fell out of favor in the early 2010s and only really started creeping back into our lexicon thanks to the emergence of Web3. 

However something interesting has been happening in the background the past few years seemingly unnoticed. Thanks in part to improved technology (especially front end libraries) and in part to the move to remote working, a number of Web 2.0 inspired tools have slowly and unassumingly worked their way up “The Plateaux of Productivity” to claim a stake in our collective consciousness. 

I think two of the most obvious players in this space are Miro and Mural. Both these tools use an infinite canvas that allows people to collaborate visually together. This came in super handy over the pandemic when we were all forced to work from home, and away from our shared white boards. We could sketch ideas out in private and share them with our colleagues for feedback; or we could hop on a call and explore our ideas together in real time.

However, more than just a shared whiteboard, these tools became shared spaces we could inhabit during conferences or virtual team retreats. There was something quite satisfying about seeing your colleagues or fellow attendees cursors flying around the screen as they all collaborated on some fun group exercise together. 

At the other end of the spectrum we have tools like Figma and Codepen. We probably don’t see these as Web 2.0 tools, but they do a great job of allowing designers and developers to collaborate with each other, as well as sharing their work with their stakeholders. 

Rise of the Multiplayer Web

Like a lot of trends, live collaboration may have started in developer tools. However those same developers start thinking where else this sort of collaboration might be helpful.  As such we’re starting to see some interesting indie dev projects like Mapus, which allows you to embed a muti-player Google like map on your website, TipTap, which allows for collaborative text editing, Sprout, which mixes whiteboards and video conferencing, or tldraw which allows anybody to add a whiteboard to their product. 

Teams wanting to bake collaboration into their projects don’t necessarily want to build these components from scratch. So companies like Liveblocks, a recent Seedcamp investment, allow teams to add collaboration features like co-editing and co-presence to their products through a smart set of APIs. This makes it easy for companies to turn their products into a multiplayer experience. 

Of course not everybody has an engineering team available to make those integrations, so another Seedcamp funded company is taking a slightly different approach. Sandbox are in the process of creating a  “collaborative browser” that turns the entire Internet into a “multi-player” experience — allowing teams and friends to interact with, discuss, and move between any sites together. 

I can imagine co-browsing tools being used for all sorts of use cases. Friends looking to plan their holidays together;  sales teams being able to run live product demos with prospects; or support teams hopping on a session with a customer to help them fill out a complex form or troubleshoot a technical issue together. I’m curious to see what other use cases may emerge as a result.

Still More Opportunity Out There

To wrap things up I think it’s safe to say that Web3 is going to be here for a while. However it feels like Web 2.0 is having a mini resurgence and still has more to give. As such I’m excited to see what other companies emerge in this space over the next few years. Companies looking to explore real time collaboration and help bring Tim Berners Lee’s dream of a read/write Web to life. And if you’re working at one such company, I’d love to hear what you’re working on, so drop me a line.