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?