Saturday, September 29, 2007

The divisions of Web 2.0 labor

I'm attending a small conference this weekend at the University of Utah entitled "Frontiers of New Media: Historical and Cultural Explorations of Region, Identity, and Power in the Development of New Communications Technologies" and having a great time. The keynote was by Henry Jenkins of MIT on various issues dealing with the so-called "Web 2.0" phenomenon which often gets reduced to the soundbite of "user generated content". Henry did a great job of problematizing the terms used not only for "Web 2.0" but for its active participants -- are they users, producers, consumers, "prosumers," "produsers," etc.? But beyond these complimentary and contradictory roles, or even the actually-existing and culturally-imagined social groups which they attach to (and fail to attach to) across the globe, the thing that really started me thinking was the question of what kind of "content" they (we) were producing. What do we even mean when we say "Web content"? What is the work being done? What is the knowledge or artifice being produced?

This concerns me because I see the same blanket statements about "content" (or "knowledge" or "information") being made all through the long history of contact between libraries and computers that I'm currently exploring for my next book project. Today on the Web, when we say "content" we're often referring to amateur, non-profit, or grassroots textual, image, sound, or video products which parallel those of professional, for-profit, or mainstream cultural producers -- insightful blog entries, artistic photographs, entertaining podcasts, or engaging videos. But we produce much more than this. We tag and organize and sort and collate and arrange in chronology in a pattern of "metadata production" (or "metacontent production") just as much, if not more, as we engage in content production. We produce instructions and guides and tutorials for acting in the real world or on physical artifacts, calling ourselves "Make" or "DIY" participants. We arrange activist or expressive or simply exhausting cultural moments, from political protests to zombie performance art, carried out ephemerally and then perhaps recaptured and redigitized as "content" in a second pass later. And we even build algorithms -- tools and caculators and sorters and all those things that all those scientists and engineers and mathematicians thought all those computers would be naturally used for all those years ago. I feel like exploring, mapping, and questioning this vast division of labor is perhaps one of the next challenges for those of us who ponder the meaning of Web 2.0 ... or even of Library 1.0.

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