Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Critical perspectives on Web 2.0


It is important to laugh at ourselves from time to time, and Merlin Mann’s parody pitch about ‘thought leadership’ at the SWSX conference was an hilarious observation on the claims made by many Web startups and networks
But there is also a role for more reflection and critical analysis, which is why I like the writing of people like Trebor Scholz, who sometimes take a longer term historical view of the development of the Web. So I was drawn to his article in a special issue of First Monday dedicated to Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0. He argues against the phrase ‘Web 2.0’, as do many people, and I agree with that; but it is an easy target these days as most of us treat the term as no more than a loose and imperfect label for a set of related trends

“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.”

“You will be hard-pressed to find a born-again Web.”

I have to admit that I find this a touch negative. I know a huge amount of people in different companies, roles or communities who are driven by the empowering potential of the contemporary interwebs, rather than just money. And, to be honest, I think we really have seen the Web revitalised since 2001, when it was all becoming rather boring. Also, I don’t think it has anything to do with McDonald’s – that’s a cheap shot
Trebor says ‘Web 2.0’ is all about building brands, implying that commercial and social values are somehow at odds with each other, and he traces this trend back to the 1980’s. This is partly true, of course, but there is a lot of goodness in the Cambrian explosion of ideas and micro-brands that the contemporary Web has spawned, and the relationship between commercial drivers and social drivers is blurred at both ends, which I think is a good thing. In the USA, and increasingly in Europe, people seem naturally inclined towards the corporation or company as a default vehicle for collective action or co-creation (and in the USA the concept of the heroic start-up appears to be ideologically rooted in the narrative/myth of the American dream). But this does not always mean companies have a purely commercial agenda devoid of social values. In a world where the non-commercial agencies who try to directly target social benefits using technology are so ineffective and clueless, I think Trebor should cut the commercial sector some slack, as small companies have contributed (either directly or indirectly) as much social value through technology as non-commercial, state or international actors
He goes on to summarise a line of argument shared by several other authors in the issue, namely the abuse of free “labour” of pro/con/sumers by businesses, citing the famous case of the AOL chatrooms in the 1990’s. He sees dangers in crowdsourcing and its basis in ‘free labour’, and is disturbed by the ownership of large social networks by companies such as News International, whose commercial agendas have permeated social discourse and both public and private spheres.

“In the 1990s, so many thousands of America Online members were performing unpaid jobs for the company, such as moderating chat rooms, that Wired magazine called AOL a “cyber-sweatshop.””

I would agree that this is potentially part of the dark side of Web 2.0, at least for as long as community hosts can hawk their members to AOL for $850m, but I think this will change. In fact, I foresee a revival of voluntarism through the Web, and I think we will start to find new ways of organising collective action and collective interests that are more nuanced than both ‘the company’ and ‘the non-profit’ as both these models are too rigid for the new world
Trebor summarises his article thus

“In this essay, I explored 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 on with unfaltering instead of explosive pace.”

But surely if even Tim O’Reilly sees ‘Web 2.0’ as an imperfect signifier rather than a meaningful category, then Trebor hardly need waste time deconstructing it. The point about the Web following a steadier straight line of growth after the initial big bang of hype is an interesting one, but I tend to think that we will see a series of mini sawtooth waves of invention and adoption, and punctuated equilibria, rather than a straight line
Several of the other articles in the issue are worth a read too, but I confess that I found the predictable references to Foucault, Bentham and the panopticon slightly ….. C20th
Matthew Allen tries to conceptualise the elements of Web 2.0 that might help us study the phenomenon as part of an Argument Against Convergence

“Rather Web 2.0 is a conceptual frame, within which we can correlate and make sense of those diverse events even as we use it as a convenient short-hand. What then are the main elements to this frame, the pieces which, together, create the boundaries around the picture of the current state of the World Wide Web? There are four – technology, economy, users and philosophy”

Søren Mørk Petersen (Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation) reprises the conflation of so-called use-generated content with the the labour exploitation of AOL chatrooms
Anders Albrechtslund (Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance) an Michael Zimmer (The Externalities of Search 2.0: The Emerging Privacy Threats when the Drive for the Perfect Search Engine meets Web 2.0) talk about the very real and interesting issue of Web 2.0 as a form of voluntary, participative surveillance, or as Zimmer says ‘dataveillance’

“[the] quest to achieve Search 2.0 has resulted in the emergence of a robust infrastructure of dataveillance that can quickly be internalized and become the basis of disciplinary social control”

“What options exist for renegotiating our Faustian bargain with Search 2.0? One avenue for changing the terms of the Faustian bargain is to enact laws to regulate the capture and use of personal information by Web search engines.”

“[Another] option is to affect the design of the technology itself. As Larry Lessig notes, “how a system is designed will affect the freedoms and control the system enables” [12], I argue that technological design i
s one of the critical junctures for society to re-negotiate its Faustian bargain with Search 2.0 in order to preserve a sense of “individualism and the meaningfulness of human decisions and actions.”

I am interested in critical perspectives on social computing, and I think this special issue is refreshing amidst all the uncritical hype. Personally, I find the old-school labour relations frame to be an inadequate tool with which to analyse new forms of voluntary and collective action. But the issue of how we deal with, regulate and/or design new forms of privacy, openness and dataveillance is clearly one of the major challenges of our time, and the authors are right to focus on this
Challenging Web 2.0’s claim to ‘newness’ or novelty is fine, as Trebor does in his piece, but to do without talking about its very real (and new) social affordances and potential for social change provides a slightly imbalanced picture. It would be good to see these critical perspectives addressed alongside the potentially positive and transformative aspects of new developments in social computing and social networking.

One Response to Critical perspectives on Web 2.0

  1. By Matthew Allen on April 22, 2008 at 6:31 am

    The challenge, always, with the positive values of technologies such as are found in many Web 2.0 applications, is that they usually emerge outside of the corporate ‘monetised’ sphere that your wonderful video clip parodied. I think you are right to raise the question though: too easy to criticise, but not to build. Maybe we need research on the ‘stolen’ uses of Web 2.0 – how people are using it differently to intended?
    Thanks for your excellent blog