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?

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