The Web 2.0 Ideology, the Power of Naming, and the Imagination of the Future of the WebOn the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC), the technologist and artist Adam Hyde writes that being annoyed by Web 2.0 obscures the fact that it is actually achieving what many of us have been hoping for. He asks “Isn’t it all just namespace?” While Hyde points to opportunities for expression enabled by current Web technologies that deserve to be celebrated, the Web 2.0 concept itself merely boxes current phenomena to launch them as a brand. Activist, organizer, and writer Naomi Klein:
|“The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid–1980’s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products… this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space: … on youthful identities, … and on possibilities of unmarketed space.”|
|Each of us may make hundreds or even thousands of clicks a day, some deliberately, some impulsively, and with each one we are constructing our identity, shaping our influences, and creating our communities. As we spend more time and do more things online, our combined clicks will shape our economy, our culture, and our society.|
Today, marketers can even learn about the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves; they are represented in the profiles of our social networking sites . As part of sea change toward the feasibility and importance of keeping private things private, American youth cares much less about their privacy than users of the Web a decade ago. Today, young people don’t mind so much that they share their “friends lists,” conversations, and navigational habits not only with their acquaintances but also the companies who interpret much of this data. With these firms (and possibly government bodies) as daily confidantes, latent possibilities for total control have opened up.
Second, considerations of the possibility of unmarketed space do not surface in public media discourse. Since its creation, market interests have increasingly dominated the Web. Technology writer Carr notes that:
|By the end of 1995, half of all sites bore .com addresses, and by mid–1996 commercial sites represented nearly 70 percent of the total. … The Web had turned out to be less the new home of Mind than the new home of Business.|
A fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology is immaterial free labor, a fairly unpopular and very complex subject. The Web makes people easier to use. By “surfing” it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms, rather than products are offered and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand. The Web makes it possible to “out–source” many tasks to the users who can create in “self–service” mode. The United States Army, for example, involved many programmers online to develop their recruitment game “America’s Army.” Jeff Howe of Wired introduced the term “crowdsourcing,” which is an additional instance of the market ideology of Web 2.0. “Crowdsourcing” means that a company outsources a job usually executed by an employee to a large, undefined group of people through an open call over the Internet. This group receives little compensation or no pay at all.
This phenomenon is not just limited to the Internet. Offline, small acts of shopping require low-level acts of labor previously performed by paid employees. Fast food restaurants require their costumers to properly discard their trash when they exit, shoppers check out their groceries in self–service mode, and air travelers are requested to print out their tickets on service kiosks.
The users/producers on the Social Web are the base to the super structure of virtual real estate owners. In Wikinomics, business writer Don Tapscott makes sense of online participation for the market–minded. He starts by explaining that the speed of innovation is speeding up.
|Smart firms can harness this innovation by using peer production to involve way more people and partners in developing customer solutions than they could ever hope to marshal internally.|
[There is] a new model of prosumption, where customers participate in the creation of products in an active and ongoing way. As in Second Life, the consumer actually co–innovates and coproduces the products they consume.
Second Life has no preset script, there are few limitations on what players can do. Residents just about create everything, from virtual storefronts and nightclubs to clothing, vehicles, and other items for use in the game. In fact, Second Life produces less than one percent of its content and now gets up to 23,000 hours of “free” development.
|In the YouTube economy, everyone is free to play, but only a few reap the rewards.|
Favorite topics are ranging from copyright, to the “harvesting” of the fruits of networked social production, democratic government, the future of journalism, social justice, and the categorization of knowledge, and national defense, to name but a few foci. Peer–to–peer solutions only matter if they can be bent to squeeze out monetary value. Art and culture are rarely central to these discussions, unless copyright comes into play. While the mentioned issues are pertinent (!), they strictly operate within the market ideology. Their class consciousness, the oak panels that surround them, and the peers whom they reference shape the perspective of these professional elites and the issues that they care about. In 1995, Christopher Lasch wrote that it is white … elites who define the issues. He talks about an elite that has lost touch with the people . Loosing touch in the context of the contemporary Web means not taking in participatory cultures on a daily basis. How can writers who argue for the democratizing effects of the Web, ignore all conversational research by many qualified voices online? A partial answer is that the Web 2.0 Ideology simply filters all statements strictly for applicability to the market.
But deep in the forest there is a door to another land. Since the creation of the Internet, there have been many social experiments challenging its commercial takeover. Project Gutenberg (the first and largest single collection of free electronic books), Virtuellen Plattform (VP) or Digitale Stad (1994) are but a few examples of this “other Social Web.” Non–wealth–maximizing goals or unconventional, non–mainstream options are off the Web 2.0 map or they are subsumed into smooth business narratives. A serious look at these social experiments, and not–for–profit projects is needed to envision a future Web that grows out of the needs and desires of all of its occupants . The Web is empowering many individuals and also social movements today. However, users don’t just click for the good of all beings; more than 742,000 people make a living on Amazon.com’s used book “associate” program. The Social Web helps in the pursuit of individual self–interest. At the same time, it’s important not to forget that we, the users are guests in the house of Social Media giants. Standing on their shoulders, we are entering their rooms; we are banking on the hospitality of their server farms, we are trusting that all the data that we are sharing through our conversations and on our profiles are not abused in scenarios of total control, barely imaginable today.
To this day the definition of Web 2.0 is vague at best and those who claim novelty for the technologies associated with the phrase, are wrong. The widespread adaptation of the phrase, however, makes it hard to ignore it as a fad. The Web 2.0 hype drew broad media attention and financial resources to businesses that manage to profit from networked social production , amateur participation online, fan cultures, social networking, podcasting, and collective intelligence
The Web 2.0 Ideology, however, goes far beyond the confines of these recent phenomena. It does not solely embrace “a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology” that worships the creative amateur . This ideology is a framing device of professional elites that define what enters the public discourse about the impact of the Internet on society
By defining what is associated with the Web today as common sense, it directs the imagination of its future
The Shifting Definitions of Web 2.0In 2004, the founder of a large technology publishing house, open source software proponent and multi–millionaire Tim O’Reilly coined the phrase Web 2.0, together with a colleague. The event producers needed a catchy title for an upcoming conference. Later, the event title was expanded into a concept that proposed a separation of various versions of the Web. “The Internet was back! This shiny new version of the Internet, the dream of a fully networked, always–connected society was finally going to be realized. The Internet would democratizeBig Media, Big Business, Big Government.”
Mr. O’Reilly characterized Web 1.0 through a set of static, one–way browser–based applications like personal Web sites and the encyclopedia Britannica Online, publishing, content management systems, and taxonomies. Subsequently, he distinguished Web 2.0 by associating it with the “new participatory architectures of the Web” that allow for online services such as the photo sharing site Flickr, blogs, the peer–to–peer file sharing standard BitTorrent, Wikipedia, event sites like Upcoming.org, the file–sharing service Napster, wikis (collaborative Web sites that allow for real–time editing), folksonomies (user–generated taxonomies), and the aggregation of online content through Web feeds
O’Reilly was onto something. Not only was he accurate about the network effect but he also understood the increasing importance of participation online. The network effect holds true for telephones and fax machines but also for social networking sites. The more people own a telephone, the more valuable this technology becomes. There is no point in owning a fax machine if none of your friends or clients have one at their avail. And equally, on Facebook, you will only be able to track down old buddies if very many people congregate on this site. People like to be where other people are. O’Reilly was also cognizant of the fact that now U.S. Americans at least had for a large part broadband access to the Internet, which set the stage for the success of Ajax, an important Web developing technique. His only possibly willful misinterpretation was that none of this had launched like a Web 2.0 rocket just in 2004.
The definition morphed considerably over time. Late in 2005 O’Reilly wrote that:
|Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications & [are] delivering software as a continually–updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an ‘architecture of participation,’ and & deliver rich user experiences.|
In 2007, O’Reilly, silently, hidden in the comment section of Jason Calacanis’ weblog, admits that he got it wrong.
|... Web 2.0 was a pretty crappy name for what’s happening ... Web 2.0 is not about front–end technologies. It’s precisely about back–end, and it’s about meaning and intelligence in the back–end.|
The New Newness of TechnologiesWhich technologies are commonly collected under the Web 2.0 umbrella? Evangelists of the phrase huddle technologies like the Web development technique Ajax , the Ruby programming language, CSS, RSS, OpenAPIs , wikis, blogs, mashups (digital media works that draw from already existing texts or audio), and podcasts (media files that are distributed over the Internet to be played back on portable media players) under its roof. They highlight user–friendly interfaces, activities like tagging, social networking and microformats as Web 2.0 descriptors .
So far, I walked you through the very short history and varying definitions of the phrase Web 2.0. Now I’ll argue against the novelty suggested by the phrase. Tim Berners–Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, is among those who questioned whether one can use the term in a meaningful way, since many of the technology components of “Web 2.0” have existed since the early days of the Web . Like with any bubble, the suggestion of sudden newness is aimed at potential investors. It is not completely unlike the techno–economic utopianism of the 1990s and a bit like McDonald’s re–stacking of their beef layers every six months ramping up for new ad campaigns. Newness sells conference tickets (and hamburgers); it drives up speaker fees and helps the circulation of books that are bought by those who are afraid (very afraid) to miss a hot new technology trend.
Social Networking Sites, RSS, CSS, and BloggingA quick look into the history of the Web will also set the record straight about social networking sites. Classmates.com was founded already in 1995, soon to be followed by SixDegrees.com. One year later, the social networking site Lunarstorm opened as a platform for Swedish, Danish, and British teens and in 1999 the Indian social networking site Sulekha and the African–American social networking site Blackplanet.com launched.
Equally seasoned is Real Simple Syndication (RSS), which allows users to subscribe to a dynamic Web site such as a blog. The first version of RSS was created as a format for syndicating content based on XML by Netscape in 1999
Style sheets have existed since 1970s. Cascading Style Sheets were developed as a means for creating a consistent approach to providing style information for Web documents. The CSS Working Group published CSS in 1997 and it became the official (W3C) standard in 1998. In recent years CSS became important as it facilitated the separation of form and content, thereby allowing the same content to be delivered to different mobile platforms such as cell phones and personal data assistants.
Finally, it’d be hard to argue for blogging as a recent breakthrough technology as Justin Hall is known to have pioneered it in 1994 by posting exhibitionist diatribes to his Web page on a daily basis . A student at Swarthmore College at the time, these early blog posts largely contained detailed descriptions of his non–repressed sex life on campus. In 1997 Kuro5hin, a collaborative weblog where users vote for what goes to the front page, was released. Two years later, Blogger.com and the blogging platform LiveJournal started.
Podcasting and FolksonomiesFairly new, however, is the podcasting phenomenon and the term folksonomy, which became popular in 2004. Folksonomy is defined as collaborative tagging, social classification, or social indexing. It is a method of collaboratively creating and managing keywords to annotate and categorize content.
These previous examples show that the novelty that Mr. O’Reilly’s phrase claims for the technologies that he embraces as part of Web 2.0, while readily accepted by countless adapters is, is fact, incorrect. O’Reilly’s phrase and its changing definitions describe and package technical trends, which are then presented with passion, authority, and the air of common sense. The language of Web 2.0 is a placeholder for several agendas. It burns the torches of 1960s–style rebellion, a “business revolution” of self–declared anarchists who frown upon authority and control as bad and deem openness as always good. But the fire is held by business elites who are trying to mobilize novelty as marketing ploy. There is some resemblance to the dotcom boom that captured the late ’90s (too much, too fast).
the brief history and evolution of Web 2.0 definitions leading up to Mr. O’Reilly’s admission that it was “probably a crappy idea.” I deflated its claims to a techno–social big bang. Instead I proposed a steady upward–moving line, not unlike the curve visualizing the process of learning a new language that can illustrate the historical development of social life online. The Web had an initial astronomical growth spurt but is now moving onwith unfaltering instead of explosive pace.
Flummoxed readers may, at this point, ask what else there is to the Web. Has not it always all been exclusively about commerce? Subtract the learned empathy with business needs and start searching for the essential needs of the millions using the Social Web including healthcare, a living wage, and job security. The Social Web is not and cannot be the all–mighty teacher, healer, and redeemer for everything that went astray in society. By defining today’s Social Web solely through the lens of business, however, we loose track of all that, which the Web could be. Re–imagine the Social Web as a place for unmarketed, non–mainstream projects that caters to all needs of those who inhabit it.
About the authorTrebor Scholz is a media theorist, artist, and speaker on technology, activism, and culture. As founder of the Institute for Distributed Creativity (iDC), he has co–published the book The Art of Free Cooperation (Autonomedia, 2007) and written chapters and critical articles about the Social Web.
Web: http://collectivate.net/journalismsThe Web 2.0 épistémè will not just go away. Therefore, it is important to have a clear understanding of its false claims, its ideological embedment, reinforced by professional elites. With Bill Thompson, a technology critic and essayist, I conclude that “If Web 2.0 is the answer then we are clearly asking the wrong question.”