Regardless of the truth, we've certainly heard a lot about it. So much in fact that, in the course of just 18 months, it has already become a tired cliche. Phrases such as "citizen journalism", "me media" and "user-generated content" have all become part of daily discourse.
In an effort to cut through the hype and develop a real understanding, Universal McCann implemented the first wave of the world's largest study into Web 2.0, which interviewed 16,000 regular net users aged 16 to 44 in 15 countries.
The aim: to assess use and attitudes to the technologies that represent most people's definitions of Web 2.0 - blogging, social networks and video-sharing sites, to name a few - as well as to quantify the impact of inexpensive and widely available broadband. The most striking observation is the extent to which adoption of Web 2.0 services and future use are being driven by Asia. China, South Korea, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines have the highest levels of adoption across all Web 2.0 activities, particularly in terms of creating and sharing their own content.
Many assumed that the US, the world's largest internet market, would lead the way. The truth is, the huge audiences of the US often hide lower-than-average adoption rates. The story in Europe is mixed; Spain, France and Italy, with younger more socially oriented internet populations, are leading the way, over the more mature markets of the UK and Germany.
Blogging, which lies at the epicentre of Web 2.0, typifies these regional differences. Blogs have made an impact across all markets, with 48 per cent claiming to read them regularly. The markets leading this passive consumption are European - Italy (79 per cent), France (75 per cent) and Russia (75 per cent) have the highest levels, while the US has the largest universe, with 27 million readers.
However, when we look at who is creating blogs, the story is quite different. South Korea has the highest levels of active blogging in the world - where 64 per cent write their own blog, followed by China (34 per cent), Hong Kong (30 per cent) and Singapore (25 per cent). All Asian markets have a much more active blogosphere - in China, 95 per cent of blog readers also write one, this falls to 39 per cent in the US and just 23 per cent in France.
This level of activity makes China the largest blogging market in the world,with an estimated 25 million people creating blogs. This popularity is driven by a variety of social reasons; for Chinese citizens, this is the first chance many have ever had to express themselves. Second, 100 per cent of the subject matter blogged is personal, they talk about their day-to-day lives - expressing opinions about politics or culture is forbidden. This emphasis on personal subject matter builds community and grows use. We can also draw demographic conclusions - a nation of single children relishes this opportunity to connect with others.
Social networking, the other infamous Web 2.0 application, again is most popular in Asia, although it is not as popular as blogging. In South Korea, 52 per cent have signed up to social networking, compared with 46 per cent in the Philippines and 45 per cent in Malaysia. However, this strong interest is not confined to Asia - in the US, 30 per cent of web users have a personal page and numbers are set to soar as the current generation of teenagers, who see a page on MySpace as obligatory, move into adulthood.
Levels of viewing video-clips and streaming live media are high across all markets. However, real- time is king; 42 per cent claim to stream live media (the vast majority of it audio), making it more popular. Interestingly, on-demand is being driven by Asian markets, while live use rates reflect an opposite trend - the top three countries are Spain, France and the US.
Despite these regional differences in adoption, there is one indisputable fact: regardless of economic or social development, internet users are embracing new developments in their hundreds of millions. Web 2.0 has substance today, not in some distant future.
If viewed positively, this is a massive opportunity for advertisers and marketers. Embracing what Web 2.0 stands for - participation, interaction and creativity - allows a more positive relationship between advertisers and consumers. By creating platforms, services and branded content that can be freely distributed and downloaded, a real benefit can be created. Internet users, without the resources of marketing departments, are creating content in unprecedented quantities, and brands that want to stay relevant have no excuse not to do so themselves.
Participation is also key; siloed, branded websites with no clear benefit will be overlooked as users continue to embrace social, collaborative platforms such as YouTube, MySpace and Cyworld. These platforms and other places like them are the areas where brands should be active, integrating their content and services. They are also driving a shift towards global media consumption, constrained by language rather than borders.
Consequently, localised brand identities become confusing and costly for brands with international ambitions. Globalising media consumption demands structures that can deliver - marketing teams with international objectives, budgets not solely divided by country borders, and communications that work across borders.
- Tom Smith is the research manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Universal McCann.