First Monday's critical perspectives on Web 2.0

The latest issue of First Monday offers critiques of the Web 2.0 concept, including this article by Trebor Scholz. I hope to get to the other articles but wanted to write some about this one. I agree fundamentally with Scholz’s observations about Web 2.0, including

  • Most of the qualities associated with Web 2.0 existed in some form as part of the Internet in the 90s.
  • The whole Web 2.0 thing is largely a kind of media-business hype.
  • There is a concerted effort to monetize every possible activity associated with online activity, including mining a variety of personal preferences.
  • Discourses on Web 2.0 are largely managed by social elites.

All of these things are true about Web 2.0. You could probably say that the last three are true of nearly any cultural activity. Certainly they are true of any other media-related activity from television to movies to music to books. However there are some important ways in which the web is different from these other media. It allows for many-to-many communication. In turn, the way in which the web is monetized is somewhat different from other one-to-many, broadcast models.

Scholz focuses on the issue of immaterial free labor. As he notes, immaterial free labor is not limited to the Internet.

Offline, small
acts of shopping require low-level acts of labor previously performed
by paid employees. Fast food restaurants require their costumers to
properly discard their trash when they exit, shoppers check out their

groceries in self–service mode, and air travelers are requested to
print out their tickets on service kiosks.

These things have variably been the case for some time. Unless you live in NJ, you pump your own gas, but in that state that’s an act of labor performed by paid employees. You probably always collected your own groceries from the aisles and brought them to the front of the store. In some places you bag your groceries; in others, you don’t. Meanwhile, online you do work just by sharing your own preferences. Similarly, you do a kind of work when you watch commercials on your television.

I don’t want to get into the whole immaterial free labor thing today. It’s a dense theoretical concept that deserves it’s own post (so take that as a warning, I guess). However it really gets into the issue of how we define labor in relation to desire or play or the creation of value/wealth.

Because certainly it is clear that these technologies at least tap into our desires. As Scholz observes, "people like to be where other people are." Clay Shirky make a similar observation in Here Comes Everybody that our preference for sociality is a primal one that we share with apes and chimpanzees. For Shirky this primal need is part of what makes social media. Scholz’s critique here is that various companies exploit our sociality in order to make a profit. Of course they also provide a service, right? Google provides me with a search engine, e-mail, and other things. They get information from my linking habits and show me ads and so on. So they make money off of my behavior. Obviously if they weren’t making money (or hoping to make money), they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing.

That said, I do appreciate Scholz’s main point, which to me is the insistence on recognizing the way that the discourse of Web 2.0 has naturalized a certain way of looking at social media that reflects particular corporate-ideological interests. As I see it, the internet IS revolutionary in the way that it has transformed communication, but that does not mean that it is revolutionary in social or political terms. I don’t see technology as deterministic in that way anyway. I am annoyed by such claims, just as I am annoyed by claims about the dehumanizing effects of technology.

I suppose that means we are left where we are often left. In my own humility (shut up, I’m working very hard to cultivate some!), I don’t believe I have the answers. Nor have I encountered any, so I am not predisposed to participating in some totalizing revolution. Instead, I am working on making good choices in the present moment, using these technologies (or not) to do what seems right at this time in my own community of students, colleagues, fellow rhetoricians, and so on. Part of that is recognizing what Scholz is saying; another part is trying to figure out how to act ethically in a networked space.

2 thoughts on “First Monday's critical perspectives on Web 2.0

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  1. I have serious reservations about this article. I don’t agree that because wikis, blogs, etc. existed in some form in 1995/6/7, we can blow off Web 2.0 as… what? Scholz doesn’t specify the consequences of the supposed non-newness of Web 2.0, other than reinforcing his general dislike of the term and his contempt for the commercial sites he criticizes. Yes, as he writes, “Many of the changes described under the umbrella of Web 2.0 have been incremental, not sudden,” but isn’t that way all technological change works? Denying that much of the web is fundamentally different than that of 1997 is just silly, though not as silly as the commonplaces about “controlling elites.”
    Scholz concludes, “Non–wealth–maximizing goals or unconventional, non–mainstream options are off the Web 2.0 map or they are subsumed into smooth business narratives.” That’s only true if your map of the web is woefully incomplete.

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  2. Yes, my thought on this was that it may be true that blogging technology was around in the mid-90s but something happened around the time of O’Reilly’s observation that led to the explosion of the blogosphere.
    Maybe his Web 2.0 vision was part of that, but it was hardly the driving force.

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