Monday, 8 September 2008

From Homo singularis to Homo socialis

As I've been preparing Inductions for this autumn's masses, I've accumulated quite a bit of information on Web 2.0 applications but it has occurred to me that I need to lay the foundation of conveying Web 1.0 in the course of these discussions. For me there's no way better to accomplish this endeavour than by articulating my thoughts 'on paper' (or by sketching out a series of all intervallic chords but those are ensconced in my Moleskine stave sketchbook.) Thus, our evolutionary tale of man's use of the web commences.

Whilst the Web itself may be nearly 30 years old (if one uses as a marker those old SMTP operations which sent email between various government research labs and academic institutions in the early 80s), it wasn't until Netscape launched its Mosaic browser in 1994 that the nascent web took off with users gaining a visual experience from what previously had been a text based application. Although Netscape no longer exists having been eviscerated by Microsoft, it represented the fundamental feature of the web at the time - access via a GUI (graphic user interface).

How far the web has come since then! One need only realise that as ubiquitous as Google is now, it is only just celebrating its 10th birthday. John Naughton wrote in Sunday's Observer on the beta release of Google's new browser, Chrome, highlighting the fact that the 'company is aiming to redefine the browser as an operating system.' In real terms this represents another potential shift as the battle-of-the-browser circle comes full turn. What IE destroyed has emerged in an open source phoenix and fully outlines the strategic direction (at least where from Google's perspective) where it thinks the future of the web lies. That it has been released in open source truly underscores the power and impact of Web 2.0 philosophy.

What is that philosophy? Basically, I would sum it up as collaborative democracy. Much like the Linux operating system and Mozilla's Firefox browser, open sourceware powered by collective intelligence will outperform and outcreate even the billions invested in Microsoft's R&D division. Collaborative democracy outlines a dynamic shift of authoritarian control represented by Web 1.0. When the visual web connected the world anew, the creation, editing and development of web pages were limited to those who knew html and/or had sufficient administrative permissions to implement these changes. (I'm not saying that pages couldn't be created without knowledge of Front Page or having ftp permissions - God knows Geocities hosted its own prescient form of Youtube with the Dancing Jesus back in the late 90s!) However, control of access was (and for most institutions which haven't evolved to 2.0) and still is, centrally managed, slow to change and (from a user perspective) unidirectional. In Web 1.0 software applications must be loaded by an Administrator and are maintained similarly.

Web 2.0 manifests itself in a virtual desktop and operating system which has its software applications scattered across the web. You are the Systems administrator customising what is needed. Further, the applications themselves draw together communities not only socially, but also to solve problems, or advocate issues with others of similar disposition. It is participative and open - inviting comments and criticisms to improve the product or test arguments. Imagine the power of this group intelligence! Without the stringent controls of Web 1.0 - entities such as wikis can accomplish what many web content management systems have tried to do but failed, engagement! The individual is more willing to participate because they have as much voice as the person next to them or up the ladder. Democracy at work.

I recently had a conversation about some of these Web 2.0 applications with a librarian who said to me, 'why do we need to do these Web 2 stuff? It's just blogs and wikis. We update our web pages enough.' With all due respect, it misses the underlying message of facilitating democratic participation. Do organisations truly put all comments out that they receive, I wonder? Is there any censoring (other than profanity or pornography) which is taking place? I can imagine that some CEOs would be cringing at the lack of a hierarchical structure insofar as some clerk in the mail room has as much voice as members of the Board of Trustees, but that in essence, is the power of Web 2.0

I think I'll close out this post with two final thoughts. First, that the world at large is truly taking up Web 2.0. Its applications generate far more content than those flat and static Web 1.0 web pages. (By which I mean, their text can not be syndicated elsewhere.) To bring this home, one need only look at Youtube's output alone. In its 3 years of existence its user generated content has surpassed over half a century of cummulative TV broadcasting in the United States with all of its networks (Wesch,Portal to Media Literacy,2008). Secondly, collaboration is key. Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, Facebook, Bebo, Myspace, Delicious, Technorati, Twitter, Flickr (and 100s more) derive their power from the community - 'from the people by the people to the people' (Abraham Lincoln) evolving from the individual (homo singularis) to the collaborative man (homo socialis).

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