[iDC] Web 2.0: from black box platforms to constrained worlds

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 26 07:13:43 UTC 2009

This seems quite relevant to our conference:

(warning: long treatment of an even longer essay; apart from the first blockquote, non-italized comments are from me)

see http://journal.fibreculture.org/issue14/issue14_langlois_et_al.html, for original, part of the special issue 14 of Fibreculture Journal

A sophisticated treatment of code politics in Web 2.0: from black box platforms to constrained worlds

Web 2.0 actualizes
>the universal platform, a constructive space independent of hardware.
>…. The challenge, then, lies in formulating alternatives that make use
>of specific protocological articulations and divert them so that they
>are not about stabilizing a system, but rather about creating other
Essay: Mapping Commercial Web 2.0 Worlds:
Towards a New Critical Ontogenesis. By Ganaele Langlois, Fenwick
McKelvey, Greg Elmer, and Kenneth Werbin. Fibreculture Journal, Issue

There must be a middle way between those who simply assert that Web
2.0 is a plot to exploit free labor, leaving its emancipatory potential
on the wayside, and the cyber-utopians who believe Web 2.0
participation is automatic. Such an approach, which I believe is the
one we hold at the P2P Foundation, uses participatory technologies to
strenghten sharing communities active on Web 2.0 platforms, while also
building our own autonomous infrastructures, so that we can engage in
more peer to peer relationships and production and prepare a
post-capitalist world. Such an approach hinges on the agency of peer
production and a critical communion with other social forces that build
such infrastructures. It’s success also depends on a solid
understanding of the invisible architectures that influence social
behaviour on networks, i.e. protocollorary power. (cfr. the article ”
The behavior you’re seeing is the behavior you’ve designed for” - by Bokardo)

The above essay gives extra insight to such necessary code politics.

Here is the aim of the essay:

“Our approach focuses on understanding the code politics of
user-generated content within commercial Web 2.0 spaces. We rely on
software studies (Fuller, 2003, 2008) in order to understand the mutual
shaping of software, hardware and cultural practices. Software studies
invites us to focus on the cultural and communicational changes brought
by software, and to pay attention to the ways in which online
communication is not simply a human activity, but a set of practices
negotiated through complex dynamics between software architectures and
different categories of users (i.e. software engineers, citizens,
activists, etc.). As a topic stemming from the broader field of
software studies, code politics seeks to understand the conditions of
code and software in relation to power, capital, and control. Studying
code politics means studying how actors have ‘literally encoded the Web
for their political purposes’.”

1. Web 2.0 as universal platform

The authors stress we should see Web 2.0 as a universal platform:

“For example, Grusin (2000) explores the code politics of the
computer when he relates an operating system’s desktop with physical
real estate that corporations compete to control. He argues
that,’whenever you boot up your computer, you are engaging in a
commercial transaction in a mediated public space which is being
increasingly contested by Microsoft, the USA Government, and inevitably
other governments and corporations as well’ (Grusin, 2000: 59). Even
the matter of your default web browser has tremendous value for
corporations. With user-generated content and commercial Web 2.0, a
code politics approach requires moving beyond analyzing the content of
the user interface to locating how that content articulates visible and
hidden processes. A discussion group on Facebook, for instance, raises
questions not only about the content of a discussion, but also about
how information about content and users is captured and recirculated by
software through data-mining and marketing, about how the presence of
commercial forces is facilitated both at the software level and at the
economic level of commercial partnerships, and about how users’
participation is rechanneled as marketable data. In short, a code
politics approach to user-generated content requires paying attention
to the articulations between the user, the software and the interface:
to explore how the cultural experiences and practices available at the
user-interface level (Cramer & Fuller, 2008; Fuller, 2003; Grusin,
2000; S. Johnson, 1997; Jørgensen & Udsen, 2005; Turkle, 1997) are
articulated and coexist with the processes through which software
encodes user input according to material (Hayles, 2004; Manovich,
2002), ideological (Chun, 2005), and legal (Grimelmann, 2005; Lessig,
2006) logics. In so doing, a code politics approach seeks to understand
the connections that enable and shape the traffic and trafficking of
information, data, immaterial labour and subjectivities online.

A code politics approach is hardly new, and actually has been a
concern not only in the field of software studies, but also in the
development of Web methodologies writ large. Understanding the
relationship between the circulation and production of content and the
shaping of the communicative possibilities of the Web has been a
constant in developing methodologies that take into account the
specificities of the Web environment. The problem does not lie in
justifying the need for such an approach, but in adapting it to the
specific dynamics of commercial Web 2.0. This requires a shift away
from the protocological approach that has been dominating Web studies.
Protocol refers to the ‘language that regulates flow, directs netspace,
codes relationships, and connects life-forms’ on the Internet
(Galloway, 2004: 74). Protocol points to the technical conventions that
enable computers to communicate in a decentralized network such as the
Internet. By extension, protocols are the sites through which
possibilities for control and resistance on the Web and the Internet
are defined. Studying the protocols that regulate the formation of
computer networks thus offers a way to examine the power relations at
stake on the Internet in general, and on the Web in particular. While
Galloway (2004) focuses on TCP/IP as the protocols that enable the
Internet, other Web studies approaches have focused on HTML/HTTP as the
protocols that enable communication on the World Wide Web. While HTTP
is about the transfer of information, the HTML language is a protocol
that encodes content within a specific hyperlinked context. Web studies
first started focusing on the hyperlink as a unit of analysis to
understand, for instance, how the flow of information through
hyperlinks can yield clues as to the communicational and social
dynamics of the actors involved in a hyperlinked network (Garrido and
Halavais, 2003). Other Web methodologies seek to examine how
discussions on issues of common interest can be studied through looking
at the evolution of hyperlink networks (Rogers and Marres, 2005). Still
other approaches seek to understand the relationship between the
protocological aspects of the Web and the circulation of content. Web
sphere analysis (Schneider and Foot, 2005), for instance, does not only
examine hyperlink networks, but also textual content and website
features (e.g. email, message posting) in the case of election
campaigns. More recently, efforts have been made to include not only
hyperlinks to analyze the shaping of informational dynamics, but also
other Web protocols such as metatags, cookies and robot.txt (Elmer,
2006). Common to all these approaches is a focus on the informational
dynamics of single protocols.

The transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, however, has changed the
language and protocols of the Web. HTML is no longer the dominant
language on the web, but rather one among a multiplicity of co-existing
and competing languages and protocols. The situation has changed from
one dominant markup language on the Web to multiple code languages. As
a consequence, hyperlinking is now but one feature of Web 2.0 spaces.
Increasingly buttons replace linking and the logic of embedding Web
objects on different Web 2.0 spaces is becoming more and more popular:
if I like a video on YouTube and want to show it to my friends, I do
not send a link via e-mail anymore, I push the Facebook share button on
YouTube and the video is immediately embedded in my Facebook profile
and visible to all my friends. Furthermore, whereas the production of
hyperlinks in the Web 1.0, HTML-dominated environment was created by
human users, hyperlinks in Web 2.0 are increasingly produced by
software as tailored recommendations for videos or items of interest,
suggested friends, etc. The technocultural articulations that regulate
the production and circulation of hyperlinks are thus different in the
Web 2.0 environment from the Web 1.0 environment, particularly with
regards to the re-articulation of hyperlink protocols within other
software and protocological processes. The production of an HTML tag
linking to a personalized recommendation is the result of the
algorithmic processing of a user’s profile correlated with other
profiles and potentially commercial interests. While these processes
are invisible from a user perspective of instantaneous communication,
they nevertheless represent a central site of analysis in order to
understand the new communicational and cultural regimes of
user-generated environments.

The folding of the once dominant HTML language into a range of
other protocols requires changing our assumptions about the Web as an
object of study. The dramatic increase of code, operating systems,
programs, languages and browsers in the Web 2.0 environment reduces the
applicability of protocol to fully encapsulate the conditions and
possibilities of Web 2.0. How then might one conceptualize the
relationships between different protocols? The model put forward by
Galloway starts with the assertion that ‘the content of every protocol
is always another protocol’: HTML is encapsulated in HTTP, HTTP is
dependent on TCP, TCP on IP, and all these protocols are encapsulated
within ‘physical media’ (Galloway, 2004: 10-11). Galloway’s model is
ambivalent in that the ‘encapsulating’ of protocols could be understood
either as a reduction of all online activity to one protocol or as
pointing out that different protocols co-exist, and that they have a
hierarchical relationship based on the material requirements needed for
them to exist. When the list of protocols was relatively simple - HTML,
then HTTP, then TCP/IP - the articulation of protocols was quite
straightforward and unproblematic. However, if, as Galloway suggests,
protocol determines the limits of possibility, and the number of
protocols increases dramatically, we need an answer as to how different
protocols interact. One of the central technical characteristics of Web
2.0 is the reliance on APIs, on customized software programs that
rearticulate protocols in different ways. Common examples involve Web
services, such as Amazon web services, which allow third parties to
access the Amazon catalogue, mashups of different Web 2.0 spaces (i.e.
Google maps and Flickr images) and internal applications, for instance
Facebook applications. APIs process and represent data in different
ways, yet they are based on a common set of protocols. Therefore, we
need an approach that interrogates the Web as an assemblage of
protocols rather than the nesting of one protocol into another. In
response, we suggest that protocols act as modular elements, assembled
as part of different Web 2.0 platforms.

The modularity of protocols, as elements that serve to create
different assemblages, necessitates a platform-based perspective. While
the previous protocological approach conceptualized the Web as a
carrier of information, the concept of the platform as ‘hardware and/or
software that serves as a foundation or base’[3] points out that the
articulation of modular protocols enable the possibility for Web 2.0 to
run complex software similar to a desktop operating system. Web 2.0
actualizes the universal platform, a constructive space independent of
hardware, imagined by the Java project (Mackenzie, 2006). Where Java
failed to network enough of its actors to stabilize the platform, Web
2.0 has created a platform by drawing in a variety of standards and
actors into its network.”

Web 2.0 actualizes the universal platform, a constructive space independent of hardware,
>imagined by the Java project (Mackenzie, 2006). Where Java failed to
>network enough of its actors to stabilize the platform, Web 2.0 has
>created a platform by drawing in a variety of standards and actors into
>its network. Web 2.0 involves HTML, XML, JavaScript, AJAX, PHP,
>databases, browsers, developers, and users that behave as a platform
>capable of being the grounds for a new class of websites (Vossen &
>Hagemann, 2007, pp. 38-48) offering a multiplicity of search and
>personalization features. While Web 2.0 can be conceptualized as a
>meta-platform that enables communication across Web 2.0 spaces - e.g.
>embedding a blog post or a YouTube video in a Facebook page - Web 2.0
>spaces should also be considered as platforms in their own right,
>because they articulate protocols in different ways to operationalize
>different logics, for instance, open-source or private. A Web 2.0
>platform is a convergence of different systems, protocols, and networks
>that connect people in different and particular ways and thus offer
>specific conditions of possibility. It becomes central, in turn, to
>figure out not only the articulation of protocols with other protocols,
>but also the articulation of protocol with other technocultural
>dynamics. That is, the question is not simply one of understanding how
>the imbrication of protocols helps create the personalized and
>sometimes enclosed, portalized and black-boxed spaces that typify
>commercial Web 2.0 spaces, but rather how the stabilization of these
>Web 2.0 platforms is dependent on a host of other commercial,
>discursive, cultural and legal processes. In that sense, platforms as
>protocological assemblages have a complex status in that they at the
>same time are authorized by and enact the specific articulations of
>legal, economic, social and cultural processes.
2. Web 2.0 as Constrained Worlds

Web 2.0 is not just a universal platform, but a ‘world-space’ in which users can exist:

” Web 2.0 spaces serve to establish the conditions within which
content can be produced and shared and where the sphere of agency of
users can be defined. With regards to understanding commercial Web 2.0
platform, this distinction draws a parallel with Maurizio Lazzarato’s
argument that ‘in reversal of the Marxist definition, we could say that
capitalism is not a world of production, but the production of worlds’
(2004: 96). Lazzarato’s exploration of contemporary forms of capitalism
draws a distinction between the factory and the corporation. While the
factory is about fabricating and producing objects, the corporation is
about the creation of the world within which the process of
manufacturing, distributing and consuming can take place (2004: 95). As
Lazzarato further argues: ‘the corporation does not create objects
(merchandises), but the world within which such objects can exist’.
Furthermore, the corporation ‘does not create subjects (workers or
consumers), but the world within which such subjects can exist’ (2004:
94). That is, the corporation creates flows of discourses, practices
and materials that delineate a horizon of possibility and therefore
work to create subjective norms that can be interiorized by
individuals. The transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 becomes more
understandable if we follow the model provided by Lazzarato, especially
when it comes to the commercialization of and capitalization on users
and their content. While the type of commercializing processes at stake
with Web 1.0 were primarily about transforming users and their content
into commodities, Web 2.0 dynamics establish the conditions within
which such processes of commercialization can occur through the
promotion and harnessing of user-generated content.”

These worlds, argue the authors, citing Tiziana Terranova’s work, are alienating:

1. “Unpaid content production, then, is one
aspect of a capitalist process focused on the ‘creation of monetary
value out of knowledge/culture/affect’ (Terranova, 2000: 38). This
new form of capitalism as expressed on the Internet and the Web is
about nurturing, exploiting and exhausting the ‘cultural and affective
production’ of the labor force (Terranova, 2000: 51).
Terranova’s analysis is easily applicable to commercial Web 2.0 models,
where processes of commercialization can take place at the level of
users and their content. Establishing a new - and free - Facebook
account lays the ground work for the growth of one’s social network. In
exchange for this service, Facebook reserves the right to use
information provided about users - who they are friends with, what
their preferences are, what they read or consult - in order to share
such information with third parties. YouTube likewise relies on freely
and voluntarily produced videos to attract people and sell audiences to
the advertising industry, among other marketing techniques, such as
promoting partners’ videos. Commercial Web 2.0 spaces are, however, not
simply technologies of content commercialization. There is clearly a
qualitative difference between the America Online (AOL) chat hosts
working for free that Terranova describes (Terranova, 2000: 33) and
Facebook or YouTube users. The main difference lies in how the process
of alienation inserts itself within a variety of online spaces.
Terranova’s investigation into what can now be considered Web 1.0
describes a process where a capitalist machine ‘nurtures, exploits and
exhausts’ user-generated cultural production. In that sense, there is a
process of alienation of the user from their cultural production as the
content produced serves to maintain and further an economic system.
Such processes are far from being absent from Web 2.0 platforms, but
the ways in which the platforms re-articulate processes of alienation
to users is more complex. The alienation of users from their
information first takes place through a technico-legal system whereby
the implementation of surveillance software is accompanied by terms of
service that authorize the platform to re-use user information.”

2. The “second characteristic of commercial Web 2.0 platforms is that processes of alienation are kept invisible to users.
A case in point is Facebook’s Beacon. The Beacon was designed to enable
more targeted advertising on the Facebook site through the sharing of
users’ information with commercial third parties. The Facebook Beacon
was quickly met with resistance because of privacy concerns and was
changed to an opt-in system rather than a set feature of the
website.[4] This software change could be interpreted as a victory
against the alienation of users from the information they provide, yet
this is far from being the case. The Beacon, after all, was a visual
representation of processes of commercialization that are still taking
place on the Facebook platform. These processes, however, increasingly
take place at the back-end level and because they are invisible to
users, they meet with less resistance.

3. A third characteristic of commercial
Web 2.0 concerns the re-articulation of the dynamics of alienation to
make alienation disappear altogether. What Zimmer (2008)
describes as a Faustian trade-off between augmented personalized
exploration and surveillance and commercialization gives way to a
dynamic whereby the process of commercialization is part of providing
to users augmented cultural knowledge, affect and desire, to borrow
from Terranova (2000). YouTube’s recommendations are designed to assist
users in their quest for knowledge that corresponds to their interests.
Facebook is about enhancing the personal socialized world of users and
multiplying social exchanges through joining groups and sharing
stories. Commercial Web 2.0 is about us - it is about re-presenting
ourselves through the mediation of the platform. This where Web 2.0
platforms echo Lazzarato’s point that contemporary forms of capitalism
is about the creation of worlds, which means the setting up of a
horizon of possibilities. This also means that specific processes of
subjectivation can be formulated as the crystallization of
psychological, social, economic dynamics and factors that favour the
formation of specific subject positions. These processes are present on
Web 2.0 platforms and present us with the paradox of narrowing down the
field of possibilities while creating, producing and enriching our
experience of being on the Web. Commercial Web 2.0 platforms are
attractive because they allow us, as users, to explore and build
knowledge and social relations in an intimate, personalized way. In
this dynamic, the commercialization of users and information is one of
the central factors through which this enrichment takes place. As a
consequence, alienation disappears, as in the Web 2.0 worlds there is
no contradiction anymore between the marketing of user information and
the subjective enrichment of users: what used to be two separate
processes are now one in the augmentation of social and cultural
factors. Third-party advertising is reinscribed as cultural capital
produced by the platform for the user through personalized
recommendations. The role of the platform, in that sense, is to set up
the context, or world, within which such re-articulations can take

The authors further explicitate this third condition and conclude: Commercial
Web 2.0 platforms help construct worlds and set up the subjectivation
processes through which users can inhabit and explore these worlds..
Following Guattari, they then propose to analyze “the economic, legal,
techno-scientific and semiotics of subjectivation”, which these worlds

3. What needs to be done

This they conclude, is a task at hand for critical scholars, and they propose a working method:
“As the role of the platform is to enact and realize Web 2.0
worlds through the articulation of protocols, it becomes necessary to
dissect these protocological articulations. Platforms perform
connections via protocols among “objects”: users, pieces of content,
pieces of information produced through recommendation and
personalization software. These connections enable the formation of the
relationships that populate Web 2.0 worlds. In other words, Web 2.0
platforms establish the channels through which information can
circulate and the challenge lies in developing tools to track, map and
visualize such channels, from the protocols that enable them to their
effects on stabilizing specific modes of being online. Such an approach
has roots in the critical aesthetics of software studies - for
instance, Fuller’s Webstalker (2003) as an alternative Web browser was
an important step in understanding how user perceptions of what the Web
is are constructed through specific visual regimes at the level of the
user interface. Such an approach also stems from info-visualization as
the production of tools to render visible previously invisible
This critical approach to Web 2.0 platforms is based on
disaggregation. Disaggregation as a method through which to strip,
parse and rip the platform into its components is a useful approach,
albeit one that needs to be adapted to the Web 2.0 environment. Indeed,
most disaggregation tools rely on Web 1.0 protocols accessible to
users, such as hyperlinks, domain names, or metatags. There are
user-accessible protocols in Web 2.0, and those can be understood as
traffic tags. Traffic tags are pieces of identification that are
attached to a Web object: a user, a video, a picture each have, for
instance, a distinct ID number on Web 2.0 platforms. Traffic tags can
be human-generated, such as the title of video, or the real name of a
user as they appear on the user-interface, or the user tags that
describe how an object belongs to a class of object (i.e. “X’s wedding”
or “election 2008″). Traffic tags are also computer-generated: unique
identification numbers are assigned to a YouTube video, as well as to
users on Facebook. Traffic tags allow not only for the recognition of
objects within Web 2.0 platforms, but also are used by protocols to
allow objects to circulate across platforms. For instance, when a user
presses the “Share on Facebook” button after watching a video on
YouTube, the ID number of the video will reappear in the Facebook
source code of the user’s page. The current challenge thus lies in
identifying and following traffic tags associated with Web objects so
as to see how information circulates within and across Web 2.0
platforms. This will give clues as to how cultural processes that are
traditionally only visible at the level of the user-interface are
dependent on the software interfaces. In turn, this disaggregation of
the articulation of Web 2.0 protocols will serve to identify
techno-scientific semiotics and the ways in which they are associated
and articulated with legal and economic semiotics and semiotics of

Such an approach is a challenge for researchers accustomed to
working at the level of the user interface. Yet, moving from the user
interface to the software interface is promising in terms of not only
analyzing the technocultural economy of commercial Web 2.0 worlds
through the mapping of the unfolding of protocological assemblages, but
also with regards to using commercial Web 2.0 in non-commercial ways.
Of particular interest are the Application Programming Interfaces (API)
which have become a central feature of Web 2.0 spaces. APIs allows
software programs to connect to Web 2.0 platforms and databases and
undertake specific tasks. APIs offer a way to access information and
tags that bypass the limits of the user interface. Therefore, their
potential as ways to develop critical methodological tools should be
explored. The goal would be to create new visualizations, new
geographies - a map of where objects flow, where they migrate, where
they are reshaped and re-circulated. The mapping of the connectivities
and disconnectivities of Web 2.0 platforms could thus make use of
techno-scientific semiotics as an entry point for understanding the
production of Web 2.0 worlds.

Critical interventions into commercial Web 2.0 platforms are
needed if we are to recognize the cultural importance and critical
potentials of Web 2.0. Many instances in code studies and software
studies show that such interventions can take different forms, from
radical ruptures to aesthetic experiments and methodological tools. It
is crucial, however, to not to be too quick in formulating critical
judgments, and to understand the power dynamics in commercial Web 2.0
as both repressive and productive.”

4. A little critique

The approach to recognize the protocollary power of platforms is
both repressive/alienating and productive, fits very well with the
general approach we have been following here at the P2P Foundation. But
I do have an important question: is such an approach not too
platform-centric. In other words, rather than to start from the
analytical approach of existing networks, shouldn’t we start with what
we want to do as peer producers first, and deal with these limiting
factors on a pragmatic basis? After all, isn’t our role not just to
interpret the world, but to actually change it?

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