Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Web 2.0 is more than just "you"

Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in 2006 was "You," and that person lived in a place called "Web 2.0". This was the "you" of new social-networking and content-sharing web sites like YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, Wikipedia, and -- yes -- Blogger. It was the "you" who labored with the latest personal and portable text, audio, and video production tools to produce free and original content for the World Wide Web -- especially for those Web 1.0 corporations like Amazon and Google who now owned so much of the new Web 2.0 landscape and benefited from so much of that free Web 2.0 labor. But the growth of Web 2.0 wasn't seen as the result of these corporate giants and their projects for commercialization, commodification, brand-building and revenue-growing. Somehow, the success of Web 2.0 was due to you.

The "you" of Web 2.0 was not without contradictions, however. While progressive, both in your technological acumen and in your willingness to open your life to the Internet, "you" were also an amateur, a loudmouth, a zealot, a short-attention-span child pretending to be a grown-up -- alternately posing as a journalist, a politico, an activist, an author, a professor, an expert of one kind or another. If Web 2.0 was ruled by "you," it was the land where "they" the experts were unwelcome, untrusted, underprivileged and even deported. Again, nevermind that most of the ideas, claims, and revelations which were discussed, debated, and derided by "you" in Web 2.0 were actually produced behind the scenes by "them" -- those representatives of powerful Web 1.0 institutions such as corporations, NGOs, governments and universities, still doing most of their knowledge production in Real World 1.0. Somehow, the failure of Web 2.0 rested with you.

And so here I sit, one of "you," typing away at my little corner of Web 2.0 (care of the corporate infrastructure owned by Google and the discretionary time granted by the university which employs me). Folks in my broad field of communication and information studies are still debating whether Web 2.0 is repressive, liberatory, or both (a set of weblog postings by former ALA head Michael Gorman and others over at is the most recent). Yet the more I read about, think about, and experience Web 2.0, the more dissatisfied with both the positive and negative characterizations of it I become. Web 2.0 is an uneven geography, not so much pitting expert against amateur knowledge production, but blurring the spaces between the two, and revealing for all of us the problems of playing both expert and amateur roles -- in both knowledge-production and knowledge-consumption activities -- more intensively and interchangeably throughout our daily times and travels than ever before.

Let me try to lay out this argument for "you." First of all, engaging in the production of Web 2.0 knowledge as amateurs does not necessarily mean that you cease to participate in more traditional forms of knowledge-production as experts. After all, a quick look at the history of "digital divide" statistics at almost any scale shows that it has been the most intensively-educated, most professionally-employed, most economically-privileged members of society who have had the most opportunity and power in building Web 2.0 over the last decade or so (much to the detriment of the utopian potential of Web 2.0, I would add). Most of you creators of Web 2.0 knowledge online continue to wrestle with knowledge offline, whether as managers or teachers, journalists or artists. With any luck, you're bringing your offline expertise online; but even if you're not, that offline expertise is still available to others to bring online themselves. Undoubtedly, though, given the different time-space demands of producing Web 2.0 knowledge (blogs go "stale" after just a few hours of inactivity) versus real-world knowledge (produced according to working weeks, semester schedules and quarterly investors deadlines) you fragment your knowledge production activities in each realm differently.

Similarly, consuming Web 2.0 knowledge resources is more likely a selective activity than a substitution effect (even with that subset of you most likely to produce, and most feared to rely exclusively upon, Web 2.0 knowledge: college students). In times and places where you happen have access to physical information -- or when you place yourself in such settings through social and cultural conventions -- you can still read a complicated book, take lecture notes with pen and paper, deconstruct the painting hanging in front of you. But in times and places with Web 2.0 connections, questions asked can now become questions answered (at least tentatively) through online collaborative encyclopedias, film guides, or photo travelogues. Rather than substitution, fragmentation and reorganization are the activities you experiment with. The online availability of print metadata means that the time you spend browsing for books in the library is vastly reduced. But that doesn't mean you stop going in the first place.

Finally, it is through those connections between Web 2.0 and Real World 1.0 that you bring to bear your new personal, wireless, mobile, and perpetually-active technologies -- from wi-fi laptops to Internet-capable mobile phones. These devices -- like online access and experience itself, still subject to a digital divide along the expected lines -- complicate your current time-space patterns of knowledge production in both Web 2.0 and Real World 1.0. In terms of production, ubiquitous connectivity outside the office means that you can be working on your professional industry analysis or your graduate thesis at home, in transit, or on vacation. But high-speed Web access within the office means that your coffee breaks are no longer spent around the water cooler, but typing on Blogger or uploading camera photos to Flickr. You can consult collaboratively-provided consumer information online while roaming the aisles of the grocery store. But you can also do some instant online fact-checking or footnote-following when you're reading that history book under the covers before bedtime. The physical infrastructure now available to you, allowing you to alter the spaces and times in which you draw from and contribute to Web 2.0 knowledge during your busy day, becomes nearly as important as the original virtual infrastructure that enabled you to produce and consume Web 2.0 knowledge in the first place.

Where does all this leave "you"? Perhaps you are not as important as "they" think. After all, they still build and own those virtual and physical infrastructures -- they being the corporations, organizations, and governments which employ, engage, and serve you. You will continue to restructure your production and consumption of Web 2.0 knowledge, but always within a tightly-coupled dialectic to the production and consumption of Real World 1.0 knowledge. The potential exists for a positive feedback relationship here -- producing more knowledge, in more ways, with more checks and balances, and more points of entry, made accessible and understandable to more people than ever before. But it's a decision that is, perhaps, both up to "you" and out of "your" control.


Yihong Ding said...

Web serves for the public; web also servers for selfishness. Ironically, web contributors primarily work for "self" though the aggregated results benefit everybody. One reason underlying the hype of Web 2.0 is because Web 2.0 provides a new way to satisfy selfishness of mankind, as I presented in a recent post of mine.

But just as you said, Web 2.0 is certainly more than just "selfishness," i.e., "you." I cannot agree more on this addressment. Web 2.0 presents a philosophy that if someone wants to be popular, he must first contribute to the world. It provides an active environment that people can "build" their social network, instead of staying hopelessly aside and begging for the unlikely mercy from the web Gods (i.e. the major web search engines). This is why Web 2.0 is also addressed as an active web by some web researchers.

WWW is growing by itself, like living creatures. We humans invented it; we humans dedicate to it; and we humans will eventually rebuild ourselves because of it. This is web evolution.

Thanks for your post and enjoy reading it.

-- Yihong

natezilla said...

I agree with a lot of what 'you' had written, but I would start with a different analysis of the article. The issue devoted to 'you' had a shiny holographic film attached to the cover that was supposed to reflect 'you.' When I looked at my reflection I didn't see myself, I saw an unidentifiable image. I think this provides a good metaphor for the use of 'you' in Web 2.0. 'You' can't be a second person indexical, I believe it may be a trope serving some other purpose.

In reference to your previous post about your unease with the term 'information' in information labor and information studies, I think the same unease can be drawn to the 'you' in this article. 'You' isn't a good way to identify what they are referring to; they are substituting it for an intuition or a feeling of something other.

Maybe a historical analysis of Time's person of the year would help with the concept of 'you.' Last year, it was Bono and Melinda and Bill Gates. The year before it was George W. Bush. Maybe a more appropriate theme for the article would have been "We're becoming less obsessed with hero worship," or "the big players in society are becoming harder to identify."

For me, this article was a clear indication that the person of the year definitely wasn't me, but it wasn't 'you' either.