Thursday, February 9, 2012

Brave New Web 2.0 World?

O’Reilly emphasizes a clear distinction between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 being the participation of users that “the service automatically gets better the more people use it.”  Bit Torrent users bring their own resources as each is also a server and the “network of downloaders” is harnessed.  

Wikipedia is built on the “unlikely notion” that anyone can contribute.

In the section called the Architecture of Participation, it notes that a key lesson of Web 2.0 is that “users add value” but then goes on to say that only a small number of users actually go to the trouble of adding that value.  Thus, “Web 2.0 companies set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data and building value as a side-effect of ordinary use of the application.”

For some reason I started to think about Aldous Huxley’s warning of big brother and the world he painted in Brave New World.  It has been some time since I read the book so my analysis may be off, but that book outlined a future in which the general populace did not contribute but that all decisions were made for people.   I began to consider that this new generation that expects to contribute would never lead us to such a world.  But if it really is only a small number who do contribute, perhaps we’re not safe from living in a world where decisions are made for us or where we inadvertently contribute to decisions that we are not aware are even being made because of our actions.

I do remember studying in Gordon’s class about the wisdom of crowds and the idea that better ideas are usually the result when more heads are brought together.

That’s a hopeful thought for our future if Web 2.0 really is relying on a wisdom of the crowd.

The whole idea of Web 2.0 really turns the world upside down. It’s very different from our past patriarchal society.  “The boss” was always a man who had tight control.  Remember Father Knows Best?  We really believed that he did.  I can see room for feminist studies in this move to Web 2.0.  Is there a change in the gender of who is making decisions when crowdsourcing is used?


  1. Hi Kim,

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of contributing in a Web 2.0 context lately as well.

    I’m working on my masters thesis at Mount Saint Vincent University this semester, which deals with measuring authenticity among Twitter power users (musicians in particular). As a side effect of my studies, I’ve been clicking through to the profiles of musicians followers and was surprised to see that most people’s feeds consist solely of retweets of famous Tweeters. More often that not, the tweets were directly trying to sell a product.

    It really made me ponder the true nature of participatory media. While there may be a large group of people around a conversation, there are really very few actually participating in it. Especially in mass marketed celebrity culture, there’s really not a whole lot of people actively engaging and questioning it – they’re simply sitting there and absorbing what media conglomerates are selling them.

    I agree with you that it’s worrisome, and I wonder if stronger digital literacy education could help in alleviating the problem. If we train each other to actively engage and create social media content, perhaps we can avoid being controlled by Big Brother as you suggest in your post!

    1. Kim, Jarrett, I'm a little late to the discussion, and risk talking to last week's empty classroom, but I really had to slowly read the O'Reilly article, in part, because Web 2.0 is a buzzword and I find that I think I know more than I do about it!

      Jarrett's point about the "retweets of famous Tweeters" echoed one of the characteristics of Web 2.0, namely its stress on links. In the section on Harnessing Collective Intelligence, O'Reilly writes that "Google's breakthrough in search...was PageRank, a method of using the link structure of the web rather than just the characteristics of documents to provide better results." Two pages later we read that collaborative spam filtering products like Cloudmark outperform systems that rely on analysis of the message themselves. And, again, the teaching that internet success stories don't advertise their products, leaving us to conclude that advertising is just another form of reliance on content.

      I made my own link at this point, back to Manovich's 'New Media from Borges to HTML' article in our reader, where the author suggests that the media sphere we inhabit is not interested or not able to represent reality in new ways, but is more derivative, as one might expect from a linkage mania. "The new media avant grade is about new ways of ACCESSING (emphasis added) and manipulating information. Its techniques are hypermedia, databases, search engines, data mining, image processing, visualization, and simulation." (pp22-23).

      Why do I feel underwhelmed by that description? Why do I feel that I'm in a modern cave?

  2. You're echoing something I was reading earlier this week on the Nieman Journalism Lab site.

    Adrienne LaFrance is a reporter in the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat and wrote about starting to do more original journalism. Her article is entitled "What Charlie Sheen taught Salon about being original" (someone knows how to write a headline). (

    The article opens like this:

    "There’s a reason why The Onion’s recent HuffPo-tweaking satire — ‘Huffington Post’ Employee Sucked Into Aggregation Turbine / Horrified Workers Watch As Colleague Torn Apart By Powerful Content-Gathering Engine — resonated with so many reporters. “It’s because nobody wants to feel like a cog,” Salon editor-in-chief Kerry Lauerman told me. “I think it’s our fear as journalists that we’re turning into cogs of a machine.”"

    In a way, I think this may be an old problem on steroids. It's been a long time since journalists in most papers actually wrote a story rather than cobble it together from the news release with a couple of quotes thrown in for good measure, and often those quotes are offered up by pr people like me. Now the pace has quickened and there are algorithms to tell all of us what is trending and so we follow what's hot, journalists and Tweeters included.

    On an encouraging note, though, the discussion of the impact of all this aggregation is occurring and with that awareness and digital literacy education, as you mention, Jarett, there's some light at the end of the news cycle. In a way, too, the Occupy movement can be seen as a reaction to the dominant perspective fed by the elites. While Occupy is criticized for being all over the map, it's this breadth of dissatisfaction with the status quo which is its strength and also why it is so difficult and ultimately dangerous for the status quo power structures. You can't solve the issues being raised with a policy change; people are calling for a change of heart.

    So the participatory culture that is at risk of lowering the bar on information sharing is the same culture that is using social media to connect and further amplifying the "echo chamber" effect that O'Reilly describes and is using that inter-connectivity to form a new awareness (2005).

  3. Jarett and Judith - Thank you both for taking my rough thoughts and extending them.

    I would agree, Jarett, that transliteracy education will be very important moving forward. We need to instill a sense of responsibility from a very young age to this way of connecting with the world; at post secondary right now we are in the thick of this change and trying to truly understand the impact of how we must communicate in the future. I am sure we are not all seeing the potential risks and opportunities this is creating. I am sure the young people I am teaching today will reflect back on how they were just riding the crest of this significant change in society.

    Judith, that’s an interesting observation about the Occupy Movement. Everyone kept saying they had no focus but I think their message was very clear and it was an example of how crowdsourcing can move ideas. They were, as you say, very dissatisfied with the status quo. Despite the fringe elements that seemed to get the media’s attention, there was a powerful message in their ability to connect and send a message. Now that they delivered that message, I hope they will continue to collaborate and push for that change.

  4. What an interesting discussion, Kim, Jarett, and Judith. Kim, you mentioned Wikipedia at one point. Wikipedia is an interesting example of online participatory culture for a few reasons.

    It's clear that a very large group benefits from the work of a small group - far beyond the 80/20 ratio, as some 400 million people use Wikipedia each month, and there are only about 80,000 active editors (Wikimedia Foundation, 2011, pp. 4, 8).

    However, when looked at in absolute numbers, the number of Wikipedia editors is actually quite impressive. As those of us who took last summer's "Exploring Wikipedia" MACT elective will attest, entering the Wikipedia community and editing to the expected standard is more difficult than the casual observer imagines. I think it's fair to say that editors need to have quite a strong desire to "add value" to the site - in fact, given the largely anonymous nature of Wikipedia contribution, it's hard to understand motivation beyond the desire to add value, or as Shirky (2008) put it, to "do a good thing" (p. 133). In this way, Wikipedia is a great antidote to the "mass marketed celebrity culture" that Jarett refers to. It's built incrementally, with very little admistrative oversight, is non-commercial, and relies on individuals being passionately knowledgeable - or at least passionate about information.

    However, the Wikimedia Foundation (2011) has recognized a lack of diversity in the Wikipedia editing community, and notes that editors are "disproportionately male, young, and from countries in the Global North" (p. 8). So Kim, it's interesting that you've raised the issue of patriarchy, and "living in a world where decisions are made for us". While Wikipedia can be seen as a triumph of participatory culture, we tend to forget that it reflects the editorial biases of those who build it. As it grows ever bigger, we believe it's ever more comprehensive - while in fact it may be excluding huge swaths of knowledge because the wisdom of only part of crowd is included. I'm looking forward to seeing what impact the Wikimedia Foundation's initiatives to increase editing diversity will have.

    Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Toronto: Penguin Books.

    Wikimedia Foundation (2011). Wikimedia Strategic Plan: A collaborative vision for the movment through 2015. Retrieved from: