[iDC] Who's afraid of Web 2.0?

Jon Ippolito jippolito at umit.maine.edu
Mon May 29 07:49:53 EDT 2006

[Nothing like a little Web 2.0 bashing to bring out the lurkers...]

Who's afraid of Web 2.0? Not Matt Waxman or the grade-schoolers and grad students I know. Nor should the rest of us. To dismiss the innovations behind "Web 2.0" simply because venture capitalists are using this silly term to squeeze cash out of
investors is like dismissing the environmental movement because British politicians are suddenly waving green flags to court election-year voters. Let's not confuse the carpetbaggers with the communities.

Commerce didn't invent Web 2.0 features, and when the current marketing blizzard blows over, few business plans centered on them will still be in the black. Remote scripting ("AJaX") didn't start with Microsoft's XMLHttpRequest or Google Suggest;
real-time community interfaces like The Pool have achieved the same effect for years using open standards like a hidden iframe. 

Conversely, the glee with which media CEOs spout Web 2.0 buzzwords can turn to horror when they realize what increased community participation might really mean for their consumers. Oxygen Media asked Keith Frank, one of the pioneers of remote
scripting, to tell them how they could bedazzle their online audience with Web 2.0. He told Oxygen's captains they'd be crazy to try: do they really want users to start tagging Oprah episodes with user-defined descriptors like "fat," "fatter," and

But MBAs aren't the only elites intimidated by the increasing participation heralded by these online tools. Most academics get nervous when democracy raises its ugly head, a fact driven home to me at last February's College Art Association
conference. When I signed up for two CAA sessions devoted to "Defining the Digital Canon," I expected to hear why the by-now familiar biases inherent in canon-forming would reflect especially poorly on digital culture, a creative realm in which
hierarchies are increasingly giving way to networks. Instead panelists in both two-hour sessions focused primarily on the understandable but misguided question of why there weren't more digital artists represented in canonical surveys, whether
workhorses like Jansen's venerable History of Art or revisionist texts like the October group's Art After 1900. Most surprisingly, a number of the panelists balked at a suggestion from the audience that instead of establishing a Top 40 list of
artists, cultural historians might emulate one of the many Internet-based structures that would be inherently more inclusive and difference-friendly.

The panelists offered various arguments for retaining authoritative controls to determine which objects are worthy of study: "We need a canon so we can all teach from the same material." "We need a canon to react against in our critical writing."
"Without professionals in charge, art history would be chaos." "Without professionals in charge, art history would be a popularity contest." "Democracy is easily co-opted by commercial interests." Never mind that the artists these professionals
wanted to add to the canon--figures like John Cage, Nam June Paik, and Stan Brakhage--championed open practices that made room for difference. It seemed to these speakers that antiauthoritarian practices could only be promoted successfully by an
authoritative representation, i.e., the canon.

This pretense should sound familiar to students of network culture. It's the contradiction Elaine Scarry points out in her analysis of military policies that assume democracy can only be protected via authoritative structures of control. It's played
out on a more mundane but equally insidious level in each PowerPoint lecture I sit through in which the speaker drones on from bullet point to bullet point on the virtues of networked culture--or even worse, on its inevitable co-optation by
centralized power. 

Well, I'm sick of canons, bullet points, and professional exclusivity. Democracy and difference don't necessitate chaos, and the explosion in so-called Web 2.0 communities testifies to this. However, this may be a lesson that only practice can
teach. When I first experimented with the social bookmarking tool del.icio.us, for example, I naively frequented the site's "home page" only to find the volume of posts quickly outstrip my ability to keep up with them. (Today that page gets a new
post about every 3 seconds.) Then I learned from two friends who had "figured out" del.icio.us, Kevin McGarry and Francis Hwang, that I was doing it all wrong: the idea was to subscribe to different user feeds and user-defined subject areas
("tags"), leveraging overlapping subsets of the community to provide relevant links rather than trying to elicit some global list of Top Ten Links out of the collective ether. In other words, every user's experience of del.icio.us--the sites they
bookmark, the subscriptions they follow, their tag clouds that result--is different.

To experience the generosity with which acentric networks tolerate difference is to realize that there are alternatives to the Scylla and Charybdis of authority and anarchy. Even something as simple as tag clouds represent a philosophical break with
hierarchic structures. In a typical tag cloud, clickable words corresponding to user-defined categories mill or float about on a page, their position and prominence determined by an emergent count of the number of times they have been used rather
than by some top-down authorial decision. Clouds allow for overlapping, not dichotomous categories. They permit time-dependent analyses of influence rather than eternal pantheons. They visualize relevance as a swarming or bubbling rather than a
roll-call or rank.

My advice to anyone suffering from Tag terror and Folksonomy phobia? Try 'em out. Whether you're a computer programmer or art historian, play with them long enough to glimpse how they might change the way you view and do your job. And spend a little
less time bitching about the "impending" co-optation of the Internet by commerce, and a little more time doing something about it. You can start by calling your government representatives to express your support for the net neutrality amendment
currently being debated in the US Congress (http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,70994-0.html).



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