Thursday, October 25, 2007

Straddling the Democractic Divide: Individuals or Groups?

I've realised that I've got a lot of blogreading to catch up with - there are some excellent posts out there that are very thought-provoking, and many interesting links that spiral off them. This, of course, is also rather ironic in light of the following post. Information overload is something that I've always been thinking about, but maybe it's time to take it seriously... Anyway, I digress.

This follows on from my previous post on one-click politics, along with David's summary of
how the BBC are consulting Bloggers, and also Phil's thoughts on identifying semantics in information. An odd set of links, maybe, but here's where I think they tie together: consolidation - of ideas, of opinions, and of decision-making. Where they differ is in terms of how these things should be consolidated. And it's this difference that's worth exploring in more detail, as it represents a clash of principles over what sort of democracy we're going to have in 10, 20, maybe 50 years' time.

On the one hand, the "one-click" approach is a very "modern" way of doing politics. It represents an individualist approach from a bottom-up perspective, or a populist approach at a societal level. It can be considered "liberal" as it is mainly concerned with expressing an opinion rather than negotiating one. Thus, such campaigns are often either directed at one very specific issue ("we want X") because there's little to no capacity (or desire) for deliberating over alternatives. Consolidation - working out which opinions exist and matter - comes from making an opinion public, but in the light of the large scales involved, organised expressions are generally the most effective mode of publicity. See the previous post for more on this.

On the other hand, the "underdog" of democracies (in my view) is a more interactive, more deliberative democracy - closer to the perception of the Athenian method, of rhetoric and reasoning. Debate seeks to persuade people and to argue for a case both "emotionally" and "rationally". However, this means it takes more effort, leading to possible exclusion under a kind of "time divide". Consolidation is a process here, using argument to attempt to coalesce opinion around one particular point of view.

This is probably the main point of this post: we can imagine two "opposing" forms of democracy, and two corresponding perspectives on how digital democracy tools should be built. (Naturally, things are a little more complex in reality, but I think this covers a lot of how people see the development of digital democracy.)

Tech-Politics: By the Numbers

ICT clearly affects both of these in both positive and negative ways. Greater access to information makes it easier to participate in debate, while reduced social cues (e.g. more text, less inflection) may both help and hinder interaction for different individuals. Voting is made easier, but (currently, at least ) at the possible expense of security (deleting cookies is easy when you know how). However, the current climate of individualism and mass markets (in which everyone has their own of every item, including PCs and Facebook accounts) means that the populist approach is here to stay for a while. So far, the computational basis of on-line politics, combined with this populism, has meant that the success of campaigns and political issues boils down to one thing: numbers. Ultimately - in terms of affecting policy - modern social networks are more about assembling quantity than engaging people in discussion.

Even the "blogosphere" is an example of this configuration: everyone has their own blog in which their opinions are presented. Argument is possible - and somewhat common - through comments and cross-blog debate. But for most (and here the irony continues, perhaps), the links established through comments, trackbacks and blogrolls are an accumulation of like-minded individuals, ready to be called upon when support is needed. Just like social network campaigns and petitions, at the end of the day numbers and big lists matter. The value of liberalism is defined by controlling the masses.

From Quantitative to Qualitative Populism

This brings us back to Phil's post on the semantic web and, oddly, to yesterday's quote. What are we using technology for, and in what direction are we planning to take it? The Semantic Web, or even the Syntactic Web, offer one path to overcome the disjunction between individualism and deliberation. It defines the problem as that of distillation - of being able to discern an overall, "common" sentiment from the plethora of segregated (yet interconnected) forums that now exist. In other words, the (techno)logical next step, from quantity to quality, in a pluralist, populist democracy is to treat opinion as just another measurable, to be analysed by technology. It is the measured form of opinion that changes - from polls and petitions, to emotion and context.

This is why David's post, as well as some of his previous thoughts, are interesting (and why I need to catch up with the articles linked to...). Reaching out to bloggers is one thing, but what exactly is a "cross-blog conversation"? Is it an effort to raise awareness of a particular issue, and to elicit opinions that can then be aggregated somewhere else? Or is it an attempt to come to some kind of consensus within those blogs? My experience points a lot more to the former, although I welcome people to point out counter-examples. This leaves us with the question: when it comes to real decision-making, where does the power lie? Expressing opinions on a blog is one thing, but deciding between opinions is another. Is the aggregator - the conversation "overseer" - the best position to do this, or should we be encouraging greater omni-directional interaction between the individuals?


OK, so maybe from a political theory perspective there's not a lot new here - there have always been debates over what form of democracy is more preferable, and to what extent citizens should be involved in making decisions. However, there seems to be a huge deal of enthusiasm (and optimism. and hype.) for both ways forward under the technically networked paradigm. But what of the gap between them? I think the picture I'm laying out - that there is a conflict and an exclusivity between individuality and group-decision-making - is fairly bleak. But maybe it doesn't have to be, maybe we can have both our own voices, and participate more fully in "real" debate to explore an issue. Hopefully the next few posts will explore the 2 sides, and the gap, a bit more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Does ICT "Tidy Up" Democracy Too Much?

There are all kinds of things I've been wanting to coalesce into blog posts recently, but for now here's a short quote that caught my eye today. It's from an chapter by Lawrence Pratchett called "Democracy Denied" (in 'Orwell in Athens').

...if anything, the symbolism of ICTs implies a clinical and rational world that emerges from their increased deployment, that has no room for the inefficiencies and inconsistencies of democracy.

This, for me, ties in with ideas about how democracy is put into practice (e.g. vote counting and quantitative representation rather than deliberation) which, hopefully, will appear in greater detail here soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

One-Click Politics

(Warning: Ooh, wow, this one turned into a big long post...)

David Wilcox has an interesting report on Amnesty using Facebook to recruit people. I should note that I'm not a huge fan of Facebook - I have an account to see how it works, but no contacts in my list. So far, nothing on there particularly makes me want to add any, either. That said, the number of people using it clearly earmarks it for attention on a societal scale.

Two Facebook campaigns that David picks up on - Burma and bank charges - highlight the trend in "Web 2.0 politics" that is worth investigating in more detail. Whether it's worth worrying about it, of course, depends on your point of view on how democracy should work, and what kind of participation we want.

Here's the bit from each of the above campaigns, respectively, that interests me:
The Support the Monks in Burma Facebook group has reached 300,000 members, making it one of the largest groups of Facebook, and one of the fastest growing. One thousand people are joining every hour. “We are showing that the eyes of the world are still on Burma, that ordinary people are showing their solidarity and support,” said Johnny Chatterton, the UK co-ordinator...

Bank charges:
A campaign group on Facebook reached over 5,000 members and helped lead to HSBC freezing their plans.

Now, reaching out to so many people is all very impressive. But c'mon now, is this really the modern, networked democracy we've all been looking for - one based, on the whole, on how large a number we can amass?

I think there's a good side to numbers, of course - voting and polling are examples of where they can be used to settle a decision (in the instance of an election, say) or to gauge opinion (before an election). But these are specific uses, and have specific impacts - namely, they're purely about one-way information, from the individual to the central point of data collection. There's no feedback to the individuals, and there's no interaction between individuals. It's a view of people as static individuals, not as a dynamic group.

This is also the problem I have with Facebook in general, and with other schemes such as petitions - the most visible aspect to them all is a quantity: How many people have signed up? How many friends do you have? How many widgets have you added? How many fish have you been sent today? How many campaigns are you a part of? "Participation" takes on a very bounded definition, like an economic view of consumerism. It is transformed, away from the Greek idea of democracy - rhetoric, persuasion, and exercises in evidential argument - and towards an extremely shallow, almost simulated form of populism.

Two threads lead to this, each with different effects. Firstly, the networked aspect of this is hugely influential. The comparison to polls and voting above is unfair, because Web 2.0 politics doesn't cater to individuals in the same way a survey does - it caters to connections, the links between people. Thus, when we say that X number of people have signed up to a campaign, what we may actually mean is that a social network containing that many people have signed up. In terms of the demographics and the "hierarchies" that are then part of that sign-up group, this is a fundamentally different beast. You most likely have a more homogenous group, which raises issues of representation and of organisation - are people only more likely to turn "allegiance" into "action" if their peers do so? Should a more decentralised, local-social group approach be encouraged to take advantage of this?

Secondly, the numbers-led approach encourages, I think, a lot more simplified interaction. Complex interaction paths, requiring greater thought and time, dent these numbers. In the automated, economic, on-line world, these numbers are sales, hence the hullaballoo over Amazon's one-click purchase method. In political terms, a numbers-led democracy seeks to unite the most basic of political argument - emotion - with the same technology. This can be seen in Facebook campaigns and petitions alike, where the reasons for joining in are overtly moral rather than realistic or practical (who's not going to "support" the oppressed if it doesn't actually mean doing something) and the barrier to pledging this support is as low as possible.

The only reason to worry about this trend is if it turns out to be an illusion of power. The bank fees campaign apparently changed the bank's mind. Other "campaigns", such as that to bring back old chocolate bars, support a "realistic" view of power in a network age. But in both of these, the "campaign" is little more than customer canvassing. Opinion and popular hype don't necessarily lead to "reality" - a problem that Samuel L Jackson encountered.

So popular opinion is all well and good, in some circumstances. But at the end of the day, are we setting up our politics to be an easy-riding, least-responsibility, one-click "discussion" shadow?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Debatepedia: Mapping the Rational Argument

It's all quiet on the Sphereless front... Congratulations and many thanks if you're reading this, maybe via some long-forgotten RSS subscription. I'm hoping to get a few more posts out soon, if time allows.

For now, I'm hugely excited by Debatepedia, which piggy-backs on wikis but takes a much more structured approach. The idea is very similar to something that's been kicking around in my brain for too many years now (as well as others'), so it's great to see something in the e-flesh, and that's being actively maintained. (Not sure about the name though, especially if saying it out loud...)

Have a look at an example debate - say, on file-sharing - and you'll soon get the gist of it. But for the lazy, the basic idea is that you list the "for" and "against" arguments relating to particular questions. This helps break down the discussion and present a much wider array of arguments (ooh, look, coding speak sneaking in ;) to a reader.

I think this is hugely important, as too often I think people are put off debate due to the over-emphasis on certain points. For example. terrorism and safety are often used to force certain legislation through, at the expense of other arguments, and morals other than "Aie! Save myself!" This approach would (hopefully) lead to a more rational debate, and a more "considerate" (of the argument and, perhaps, of each other) society.

The second important thing is that the arena is mostly impartial. Like Wikipedia, it works because it defines a clear set of rules, and a clear aim for what should be recorded. Wikipedia records facts, not opinion. Debatepedia is the opposite, in a way - to the point where it's the same: It lists arguments as facts, such that the whole of the "logical" realm of debate is available for all to see. "For" and "Against" are equal in a sense, and this impartiality/completeness is good for encouraging participation. Strong advocacy puts many people off participation too, I feel.

One of the interesting things that comes out of the site, then, is the way it highlights the difference between "rationality" and "emotion" in politics. Don't get me wrong - I don't think you can necessarily run a debate without involving both of these. But the current climate of "debate" all too often gets the 2 mixed up - often deliberately. Emotive arguments are often backed up by supposedly "rational" statistics, for example, and we end up going round and round in circles until we're not sure what to think any more. Perhaps by jotting down the rational side of things, we can then make more informed decisions according to how we want the world to be.

Is a wiki the best way to decide which argument is best? I'm not sure about that. It'd be easy to take a technological route and add some kind of voting or rating set-up to the system, but personally I'd much rather see this kind of thing used as a tool for informing debate. Clarifying the rational, as Debatepedia does, gives you a better way of thinking about what's involved in an issue, and helps you to see things from a point of view that was muddled or obscured previously. But the philosophy and motivation behind choosing from these options - the emotive side - is far more complex, and subject to just as much rationality and irrationality as ever (a point that the Greeks turned into Rhetoric and Democracy to begin with).

It'd be great to see a simplified version, with a hugely "dumbed down" (read "user friendly") interface, and centred on one particular issue - a small trial. "Local" instances could even be used within small groups, to map out otherwise-murky and ever-twisting discussion over the course of a day or two, for instance.

I'm definitely going to keep an eye on this one.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Citizendium, and the necessity of Public Domain Knowledge

There are those rare, unforgettable times when a cat gives birth to a dog. There are those even rarer times when this blog gets posted to. But it lives on, akin to some low-budget B-movie terror that just. won't. die. Apparently cosmic forces have aligned themselves once again.

Larry Sanger has launched a fork of Wikipedia called Citizendium ("sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um", apparently). (Picked up via smartmobs.) The aim of the fork is to encourage a greater role for experts in contributing to and editing the knowledge base. Larry has written an accompanying essay over at titled "Who says we know: on the new politics of knowledge". I thought some thoughts on it were relevant here, as knowledge is one of the bedrocks for participation and discussion, and is increasingly more important for political debate.

To summarise the article a little (ok, quite a lot)... Larry breaks his essay up into 4 sections: the first outlines the nature of knowledge, and the evolution of authority over knowledge (i.e. who gets to say what is knowledge); the second looks at the pros of getting both the (non-expert) "public" and experts involved in contribution; the third defines "dabblerism" and explores the difference between the "wisdom of crowds", and the necessity for experts - or at least why the former may not necessarily apply to content publishing; the final part takes issue with the moral arguments for egalitarianism put forward by wikipedia supporters, ultimately highlighting that experts are still a necessary dependency for wikipedia, and as such, should be more closely integrated.

The debate is interesting to me as I'm looking a lot these days into the role of knowledge within political discussion, especially discussion of scientific matters that seeks - or is forced - to include the less expert, less formally-trained demographic. Over at the related discussion, George Dyson notes H. G. Wells' vision of a global encyclopedia, wherein the knowledge of humanity is made available to humanity. While there are differences between the version foreseen by Wells, and what's happening in Wikipedia, I think certainly the new electronic networks we now rely upon have opened up forms of knowledge assembly that weren't possible before, and it's these collections that are now shaping the structure of discussions.

Sanger notes that one of the main differences between experts and non-experts is the dimension along which content develops. To broadly generalise, but somewhat truthfully I believe, non-experts contribute breadth of topics more easily, while experts are in a position to provide depth to subjects. This is partially why comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica is like comparing Charlie Parker to the Beatles - each draws on a fundamentally different group of contributors, for a different aim. In that sense, there's a gulf between the two, which is why it's good that efforts such as Citizendium are at least willing to explore it.

This difference in aims, however, highlights an important part of political progress in the last 15 years or so, and mirrors to some extent sociological efforts to "undermine" the universal authority of scientific knowledge, as undertaken by Brian Wynne and Sheila Jasanoff. Sanger alludes to this new social, democratic nature of information-led decision-making when talking about Wikipedia, and its effect on where we get out information from:
"No doubt the main philosophical reason for epistemic egalitarianism is, like the reason for egalitarianism generally, the now-common and overarching desire for fairness. The desire for fairness creates hostility toward any authority—and not just when authority uses its power to gain an unfair advantage, but toward authority as such."

This fairness becomes embedded in processes - which we, as a public, then relate to more closely with than the information itself. To borrow from McLuhan, "the medium is the message" - in other words, how knowledge is collated is more important than what that knowledge says. Or, in a way, wikipedia is more relevant to us, as a "public" (rather than as experts) because we can identify with the mode of production, even if the knowledge contained in the structure is less "validated".

Furthermore, I think this is a theme that ripples through the wikipedia discourse. There is often - especially in the Citizendium discussion - far too much emphasis on collective wisdom, and emergent knowledge: the idea that opening up the structure to many people means that so long as everyone does a tiny bit, something great reveals itself. There is an important, over-looked flipside to this, which I think is often left implicit, or shied away from in discussion among"experts" - this vast silo of information is also available to anyone. The smartmobs link adds that the ability to fork these databases is highly important, but it's this same openness that again makes Wikipedia more relevant to the public than other sources.

Think about it - where else can a member of the general public gain access to such a realm of information easily? While Wikipedia is compared to Encyclopedias by those concerned about authenticity, and to other mechanisms such as expert peer review by academics (interesting that the peer review systems must now be differentiated), both of these are prohibitively expensive to the likes of Mr and Mrs Average. Encyclopedias are costly and take up space, and going to a library takes time. Academic journals are insanely expensive, and even once access is gained, there's very little in the way of a formal system to inform unknowing readers which journals are "good" and which are "bad".

The push towards a "knowledge economy" is a sharp, two-faced drive for "progress". The term itself implies a paradox. We are all "part of the economy" as individually we stand to gain from it - mainly financially, but also technically, and therefore socially (supposedly). But it is also clear we are talking about a specific form of economy, namely "knowledge capitalism" - a perhaps-inevitable offspring to follow mercantile capitalism and industrial capitalism. Under this scheme, knowledge is owned, it is a private good, subject to intellectual property regimes and dramatic fortification. If this paradox becomes reality (a paradox in itself, maybe), then we apparently stand to gain from knowledge in some way, but not to actually control it - or even have access to it.

From a pro-discursive engagement point of view, this is surely unacceptable. The increased privatisation of knowledge actively restricts the knowledge available from a public perspective. In other words, knowledge is a resource, and if the supply of this resource is limited, the discussions that we are able to have, from a non-expert, non-professional perspective, are similarly curtailed.

From this, we can sketch a point of transition, where we currently stand trying to work out where we're going. Implementation of greater public engagement relies upon both ubiqitous networks and ready access to information - the "how" and the "what". Huge efforts to incorporate the former are being undertaken on a daily basis. But where's the corresponding drive to incorporate the latter? Why is Wikipedia still seen as a "bad source to cite" in academia circles (which it is), rather than a tool for knowledge amongst those who are outside all other "knowledge elites"?

That's not to say that Wikipedia is necessarily the best tool for the job. Citizendium is one attempt amongst many to improve that. But in terms of free access to large amounts of information, it's the best thing we currently have. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time, and no doubt further development, such as "epistemic responsibility" (as put forward by Gloria Origgi) would emerge somewhat spontaneously and rather quickly following initial steps.

The sad thing, I think, is that if this isn't at least attempted, collective information sources will effectively be "de-fanged" under a more private approach to information, taking with it the bite that is necessary in our public engagement circles.

See you in a month ;)

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Diebold goes to court after losing sale

Interesting business tactics #3152: Take your customers to court when they opt to buy someone else's voting machines. Have Diebold been taking lessons from the RIAA?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Greenpeace Win Nuclear Consultaton Challenge

This is a big story: Nuclear consultation 'was misleading' proclaims Judge, following a legal challenge on the government by Greenpeace.
A judge ruled that the consultation process before making the decision last year had been "misleading", "seriously flawed" and "procedurally unfair".
For too long, public "consultation" has been subject to bad information from the government (think Iraq Dossier). This ruling seems to strongly highlight the difference between what government want to do, and how much they permit discussion to take place. I suspect the attitude examined in this ruling isn't particularly unique, and goes a long way to explaining the general dismissal of politicians as willing-to-listen.

Climate change is a huge issue. The solutions may well include nuclear power in some form, but the point here is that we can only reach the right solutions through greater discussion. Tony Blair rubbishing suggestions about cutting long-haul flights, for instance, very much clamps down discussion, by letting it be known that these things aren't open to debate.

Some people would like to think that the future of the country/world has been decided for us already.

Politics: Honing in on the Social Enthusiasts

Slashdot links to an article about a US presidential candidate setting up in Second Life, the virtual world reminiscent of Snow Crash. What's intriguing here is why John Edward is doing it - not for any features or particular press coverage (he says), but for the kind of people that inhabit the space.

The new social networking craze has, in a way, re-embodied the thing that many feared the Internet would threaten in the first place - social interaction. OK, perhaps "re-captured" or "re-structured" might be better phrases, as I'd go so far to say that the kind of interaction taking place is fundamentally different - location, and all the issues that stem from it, is absent. The community here is self-selecting. Thus, the kind of community that emerges will be different.
While SL users do not have the same numbers as, say, MySpace, they have communication skills, and a desire to communicate, that, I humbly say, exceeds that of MySpace users.
This highlights an interesting facet of politics within a liquid network of networks. The question faced by a politician is: who should I address - the people who are interested in politics and who are likely to vote, or the masses (the majority, one would suspect) who can now be reached, but who aren't so interested? To be so crude about it, quality or quantity?

Mass media has meant that the latter has become more "efficient" over the last few decades. But can we now expect this to shift dramatically as group formation gets easier, and (more importantly) group selection becomes more readily available? Or is Second Life simply a one-off novelty party, which it makes sense for politicians looking to be "hip" to tag along with?

Certainly, the strength and "fluidity" of groups is one theme that I'll definitely be following here for a while.

Update: After reading David Wilcox's piece on local on-line centres and "confident citizens", I wonder if there's a similarity. Just because people aren't in a certain place (whether it be the centre, or a 3D virtual world) doesn't mean they're not social, or not politically interested. Nor does socially "enthusiastic" necessarily equate to politically enthusiastic - in the same context. That is, we may be political in one group, and completely apolitical in another. Perhaps it's more important to focus on appropriate engagement forums, than making efficient ones? (Going into Second Life to garner discussion because people are there is efficient from a candidate's point of view, but ignores all the people who aren't there, or who can't get there.)

Is it all about getting the right mix of setting, attitude and topic?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pseudonymous Politics

Danah Boyd muses about the abolition of walled gardens, taking more searchability as a thread to weave together contextuality and identity - in other words, perhaps we need walls to define context, to define identity. But more transparency (mostly through searching, but also - I would add - through stronger network externality effects*) seem to be the way the net is going.

I think this has important and interesting implications for on-line discussion, as it provides a nice basis for thinking about what identity means within political debate, and how it could be handled on-line. For example, my local issues forum has a "real name" policy - one assumes that by using a "real" name, not only are people are more likely to consider what they say more carefully, but also that the link to off-line deliberation is "preserved" to a greater extent.

But now compare this to other forums. In my experience, isolated identity can also prove to be a strength - of the community, and therefore also of the discussion. Despite - or through - a foundation of anonymity (though certainly not mandatory), the cypherpunks mailing list flourished in terms of arguments, to an extent that I would hope many practitioners of politics would be proud of. Perhaps the technical nature of the crowd acts as a counterbalance to some issues that arose (e.g. from the use of killfiles to discussion of the plausibility of content analysis to gauge identity), but the point remains - arguments do not depend utterly on knowing someone's "true" identity.

Naturally, if we reconstruct democracy in some selected image (rather than merely growing it and seeing what emerges), then issues of identity over "legitimacy of participation" arise. A forum on the Internet is inherently global, so how do I make sure that only local people can participate? True identities are one way to help encourage this. But no workable solution will be foolproof, nor need be. The question then, the decision to be made, is over whether pseudonyms help or hinder discussion. And, perhaps more vitaly, what the aims of the discussion are (which may not necessarily be simply to arrive at a decision).

I'd like to see some research into this - say, comparisons between deliberative groups that were pseudonymous and groups that weren't. There might be some out there, but I haven't come across it. Perhaps some hypothesising/observations might help air some thoughts:

  • Pseudonyms have a reputation of their own. People like pseudonyms as this reputation is separate to any previous/alternatives (perhaps a "local reputation"). The upside of this is that people are more likely to focus on arguments than on personal attacks. The downside, of course, is that there is less come back, so people may be encouraged to lie, etc. However, both of these are initial concerns in the evolution of a group - assuming that all pseudonyms within a group are new. How the group grows will affect how newcomers are reacted to (which will probably depend on a further mix of local reputations, and argument). In this sense (an important one, I feel), the group is more likely to see the ongoing discussion in an objective manner.

  • People may feel more attached to their pseudonymical identity, as it is their "creation". Thus, just as people invest time and money in building up a character within a game (such as World of Warcraft), they may also invest time in building up their newfound identity.

  • Anonymity within discussion may help people to "come out of the woodwork" if they feel it is unattached to the rest of their life. While there may be some effect on what people say, I would expect that only a minority of people actually go out of their way to be troublesome. This would probably be easily countered by the number of people who would feel encouraged to say things they wouldn't normally say under their true name.

Just a handful for now, to raise the question - there are certainly huge issues over legal accountability, technical surveillance, etc tat go alongside. Certainly, the target audience is a huge consideration. Hopefully in a follow-up post (and to get back on topic...), I'll have some thoughts over what this area of nymity means for a political sphere in which groups are often the most persuasive forces, and where one person may participate in many groups.

* As we become more and more connected, do we increasingly flock to less sites in greater numbers?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Democracy and Web Commercialism - one and the same?

Been wanting to post this relatively minor piece on the Web 2.0 Bubble Popping for a while now, so here it is. By way of introduction, I'll paste this part of the post:
So, does this mean that Web 2.0 is dead? No, but what we have already is a clear winnowing thanks to supply and demand. Startups are launching by the boatload and getting funded too. ... These days it's cheap to start an online venture.
At this point I'm reminded of recent discussion over at David Wilcox's blog on the launch of social networking for "social entreneurs" (my inverted quotes, see also the follow-up). While the two threads aren't a one-to-one match (criticism for how a social networking site presents itself is not necessarily related to the hyping of an industry at all), there are important issues here to consider in terms of how "we" (the public, to get back to the blog's theme) interact with each other, and kick ideas about. After all, the recent craze for social networking is not a new inspiration, but one that goes back to the dawn of human communication.

It is, I think, fair to say that the split between the citizen and "service consumer" is fuzzier and less distinct than ever before; the implicit assumptions of "Web 2.0" - that business models can be built on top of community and "user-generated content" are merely the two ends of the consumption/interactor line meeting and forming a circle. Efforts emerging to "regenerate" civil discussion sync up (to the detriment, IMHO) with competitive/commercial networking services in several ways:

1. They have to target some already-networked, niche "market" (or section of society) to get off the ground. Network externalities mean that efficiency under the Web 2.0 banner depends on exploiting and reinforcing existing links. Market specialisation, "unique selling points", all these things mean that functionality must be targeted now, as more generic services (even including e-mail, etc) provide more general communication mechanisms already.

2. This specialisation increases the focus of the service and, hence, the ability to grab a headline momentarily, but reduces the overall usefulness of the service - in other words, competitive edge ends up damaging itself. This can be compared to the increasing specialisation in increasingly obscure subjects within higher education - the need to carve a gap is fine for the purposes of 1 system, but not for the wider picture.

There are probably more similarities than can be drawn, but the point is this. I don't think I'm off-target by drawing similarities between the rise of "Web 2.0" (user participation) and the progress of participatory democracies (citizen participation). The question at the end of all of this, then is: what are the implications of a participation "bubble" bursting? Implications for local government? For national government? And for "engagement" services trying to get off the ground? Are they all at the whim of a larger, market-driven approach to what we might consider "sociality" to be these days?

Does the new-democracy bubble pop alongside the web2.0 one?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Engagement, Media and Broadband in 2007

Clay Shirky's post on YouTube vs HDTV is making me think a little. This, I think, is the crunch point, the crux behind YouTube popularity:
People like to watch, but they also like to create, and to share. Doubling down on the watching part while making it harder for the users to play their own stuff or share with their friends makes a medium worse in the users eyes. By contrast, the last 50 years have been terrible for user creativity and for sharing, so even moderate improvements in either of those abilities make the public go wild.
Very astute. Comments on the article also rightly point out that "For each level of service its own delivery mechanism", which is very important.

So we have 2 models here: the "top-down" model (or the "Total Controlled Content Delivery Package" as Clay puts it) - embodied in HDTV and DRM, and the "grass roots" model symbolised by YouTube. If I were to hazard a prediction for 2007 and digital politics, it'd be that political parties will tap yet more into getting users to generate content. Forums are no longer enough. "Create your own Tory movie" will be the Next Big Thing [tm], probably on a site called BlueTube or something. In other words, the rich, user-provided media that all the new Social Networks want to tap into is what the parties are after: eyeballs, attention, celebrity awareness.

Not everyone, of course, can or wants to create movies or mash-ups. Still, the "campaign" hits the headlines and thus the attention of those who want to tap it. Politicians, however, are in an interesting location - they have some influence. (Some.) Are they going to be able to tap into national policies and ideas in order to capitalise on this "new wave" of political/audience engagement? That is, in much the same way that many companies (banks, shops, etc) created their own, branded ISPs in the 90s in order to tie together medium and message, what methods might be used to draw "creators" into the fold of the elected?

The biggest disappointment, technologically, for me at the moment is the lopsidedness of (mainstream) broadband. This in itself seems to embody the "top down", consumption led model that HDTV shares. By concentrating on download speeds and providing relatively poor upload speeds, it is assumed that users will exchange small amounts of data (say, numbers - "cash") for large amounts of data (rich media). However, does this help or hinder political engagement at a more "down to earth" level? Does such an assumption re-inforce a view that political services should be "big" providers in order to be fully functional? What would the on-line political arena look like if we have more symmetrical transfer speeds (equal up and down rates), and perhaps more decentralised storage systems (making it cheaper to set up a rich service, in terms of storage)?

Getting people connected is important, but we also need to examine the kind of services permitted by the type of connections being used.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Cynical and Detached New Year?

Happy new year from Sphereless, 2007 looks like it's going to be an interesting one.

Old article from BusinessWeek last month: Who Likes Consumer Generated Ads? Not Young Adults
Survey respondants between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely than those between the ages of 25 and 64 to say a company that uses customer-created advertising is less trustworthy, less socially-responsible and less customer-friendly.
What does this mean for the future of user-centric services and for involvement in politics (where the same trust/distrust balance-split is likely to occur in some form)? If the younger generation are more cynical when large organisations and corporations "reach out", is it likely that they'll turn instead to more "local", smaller groups?

Of course, while small may be beautiful, there's nothing to say that small is reputable. (But then, there's nothing to say that big is either...) But that's the nature of life. What small does mean is that these things get harder to track, as scale and evolution (jumping from one small group to another, and the creation/dissolution therein) increase the complexity, mirroring that of the networks coming into play.

From an Academic (capital A) point of view, this is annoying :) as it makes it difficult to really understand what's actually happening in reality. From a non-Academic point of view, though, I can only hope that this combination of cynicism with scepticism ultimately benefits us. The danger is that we (as an "older", "involved" generation?) continue to ignore the complexity, either by assuming that the world fits into a 2- or 3-party (FPTP) election system, or by assuming that a limited range of ideas are effective for an incerasingly "connected" audience.

The discussion of containing technology and making it available to the masses is part of this assumption, IMHO. The discussion that isn't happening is the underlying relationship, between the increasingly complex (yet still "designed") nature of the technology being harnessed, and the "consumption" nature of the apparently increasingly detached youth. In a way, this harks back to science education, which is really merely symbolic of this divided relationship that we have yet to address in any meaningful manner.

In other words, should the "public" be able to use the technology, or should it be able to understand it?