Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The dark underbelly of Web 2.0

Web 2.0 – broadly, the move from a read-only web to a read-write web – has given millions of people a platform to make their thoughts heard. This has a created spectacular positive change in the way the Internet operates.

People can upload thoughts, videos, music, etc. This can be intellectually nourishing, highly satisfying and plain fun; in short, can be an enormous addition to people’s lives. I have no problem with any of this, in fact, I am all for it. It’s when it starts affecting others’ lives negatively that it becomes problematic.

The benefits of Web 2.0 are much discussed; the disadvantages remain underspecified. And disadvantages there are.

What I am talking about is the dark underbelly to the massively-multi-author Internet. The way Web 2.0 has become a playground for the bigoted.

Like how the BBC's 'Have Your Say' rapidly descends into offensive mud-throwing contest between crudely stereotyped ideological positions; or how a benign video on YouTube will generate a gruesome binge of aggressive xenophobia; or how a female vlogging will be 'digitally assaulted' when lurid comments are posted detailing the acts some man wishes to perform with her. (The image shows AnonyGirl1, a teenage girl and a frequent YouTube vlogger, receiving a comment.)

What I am talking about are the sorts of things on which court cases are fought in the analogue world but which run amok in the digital one. Really, what Web 2.0 gives in many cases is an accurate model of human communication from behind fully-tinted bullet-proof glass.

However, this quick-to-rear hatred is arguably not the biggest problem: it’s too obvious. For most it’s an annoyance, for some an insult. Rather, it’s all that politely composed opinion that is nevertheless unqualified, confused and inarticulate that is dodgy. Properly researched opinion is replaced by armchair journalism of the worst sort.

The argument that the democratisation of the web cancels out these pockets, because people can just get their information from another source, is undermined by the evidence that people inhabit their niches in the blogosphere and don't tend to take trips outside of it (for instance, Republicans will not read Democrat blogs and vice versa) (the source for this evidence is eluding me at the moment, but I will find the report I read it in soon!).

What you have then are unaccountable, isolated pockets of heavily-biased information in which people wallow, breeding ignorance and bigotry.

This is not a plea for a return to the old-style top-down system of a few professionals writing for the many. (Far from it: Web 2.0 is arguably the greatest addition to democracy and meritocracy that has ever existed.)

Instead, I think the many should adopt standards of the professionals. You never know, maybe Web 3.0 could automatically enforce it....

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