In 2004, the O’Reilly Media Group organised a conference in which the term ‘Web 2.0’ became a popular buzzword to refer to a new Internet model that revolved around the relational dimension. A decade later, we can confirm the far-reaching nature of the radical changes provoked by this phenomenon, which has two sides that merit reflection.
Web 2.0: 2004-2014
It is widely accepted that the ‘Web 2.0’ concept was coined at a conference organised by the O’Reilly Media group in October 2004. Although other authors had already used the term previously, the amplification of this new stage was very closely bound up with this conference at which survivors of the dotcom collapse in the late nineties, summoned by an elite of cyber-ideologues, announced the emergence of an innovative relational model that placed users at the centre but also transformed them into a source of almost inexhaustible ‘raw material’ for the digital universe.
This development marked the start of the great call for the participation of (digital) citizens, who were offered a series of tools that enabled information-sharing, interoperability, and ongoing participation in content creation, as described in the corresponding entry in Wikipedia, which is one of the triumphant projects of the new ecosystem that started to take shape a decade ago.
In spite of the objections of the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who described the term ‘Web 2.0’ as ‘a piece of jargon’, the advent of collaborative digital technologies has favoured a series of transformations that were unimaginable in the late twentieth century. Social networks, wikis, blogs, mashups and folksonomies are the result of cumulative changes in the way software developers and end users make use of the web, and they have allowed a flourishing of social and cultural promises with maximalist objectives at the local and global levels. The most far-reaching include providing access to all the knowledge accumulated by humankind throughout the centuries, and working towards a truly democratic culture in which social media play and will continue to play a decisive role.
Ten years after its birth – a decade that has led us into a jungle of jargon and idiolects pertaining to the Internet and the technologies derived from it – the phenomenon that we know as Web 2.0 can be considered from a more critical and complex vantage point. We can see it as a two-sided phenomenon that we must continue to reflect on, in spite of the fact that the fast pace of technological development can quickly make any theory or critique obsolete, even when they are not based on fears or preferences but simply try to return to the question of ‘meaning’. This article attempts to take stock of the positive and negative aspects of the 2.0 phenomenon. Side A of the social web is a defense of the evolutionary leap it has entailed. Side B negates and challenges its accomplishments and casts a cone of shadow over the future of the Net.
Side A: The Common Good
- The social web promotes access to culture and offers a more egalitarian way of conceiving, producing, sharing, and distributing information and knowledge.
- It is based on distributed network models, which, unlike centralised and decentralised networks, allow each node to potentially connect to all other nodes in a network.
- Web 2.0 is a vindication of collective intelligence; it favours a powerful reactivation of community practices, and promotes a reformulation of communal assets and spaces.
- The social web enables the spread of the critique of current economic and political models and thus boosts citizens’ participatory capacity.
- It challenges traditional ideas about copyright and the cultural business models linked to them. This has not only shaken up the record, film, and publishing industries, it has also led to the emergence of alternative models and structures that are open to new artists and to globally connected local communities.
- The social web challenges the traditional notion of auctoritas and favours the emergence of new categories of knowledge, allowing new ‘prescribers’ to come on the scene.
- Web 2.0 promotes ‘expanded practices’. There is no sphere of human activity that has not been affected or influenced by more open and participatory dynamics, as can be seen by the impact of ICTs in the education system.
Side B: The Shadow of Big Brother
- Web 2.0 has generated a massive global marketing operation that benefits those in power and favours the accumulation of wealth by multinational communication corporations and high-tech companies.
- It is an extraordinary channel for the flourishing of techno-utopias, some of which appear to be designed exclusively for and by technocratic and scientificist elites.
- The social web (and the Internet in general) promotes a weakening of important intellectual faculties such as concentration, in-depth thought, the cultivation of memory and critical thought.
- Promises of emancipation were, once again, unfulfilled. The ‘You’ that Time magazine proclaimed Person of the Year in 2006 became an alienated subject given to uncritical fascination, whose life in society revolves around the latest technological gadget.
- The flipside of the social web is the new and increasingly sophisticated forms of control that range from a detailed knowledge of our consumption habits, tastes, trends and hobbies, to mass espionage practiced with impunity for political objectives. This is the outcome we can easily imagine if we take the consequences of the post-Snowden era to the limit.
- Web 2.0 has enabled an extraordinary accumulation of data, and citizens are only now starting to understand and resist its use and exploitation; so much so that a new generation of Internet companies are working on a business model geared towards maximum privacy, the right to be forgotten, and the control of personal data.
The Speed of Change
Before we can come to grips with the true feats and obvious dangers of this second stage of the global use of the Net, we are already ‘included’ in a new stage (Web 3.0) that entails all the benefits and risks of the datafication of the world and promises substantial innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence and 3D technology. Controversy surrounds the naming of this new cycle: the semantic web, the Internet of things, the Age of Big Data, etc., but it involves converging phenomena that highlight accelerationist tendencies.
The speed of change is the only constant, and this makes it difficult to create legal frameworks that restrict, regulate or shape the way new technologies affect information and knowledge. Rights and laws are slow-moving, always dragging behind the technological innovation sprint.
What are we to think? How are we to act? It seems clear that we cannot move forward without seeing the Internet as part of the solution rather than just part of the problem, and trying to expand and develop its positive aspects. It may well be that the social web exalts the role of prosumers, bricoleurs and contributors, that it favours true participation, that its paradigm of co-creation enables a true democratisation of culture and of politics, and that it promotes collective intelligence and the clarification of ‘common assets’. But it is up to us citizens to actively shape the new social, political, cultural and scientific stage, which is both physical and virtual. This is the battleground for the struggle to gain power over the narratives that define our current status as a society. That is where the present-future of the world we are creating is being played out.