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Weaving it together: Web 2.0
July 18, 2007
On this day, we were together staring at the screen and I was expressing my disappointment and disagreement with the entry on Bollywood music in Wikipedia, which we had been looking at.
"What do you mean -- change it? It is a text in an encyclopedia written by an authority. I may not be happy with it, but how can I change it?" I asked.
Rohit looked at me as if I was a dinosaur. I have got used to that look. "No, uncle, it is not an encyclopedia. It is Wikipedia. You are supposed to change it, if you know better. You don't have to accept it," he said smugly.
I was being introduced to the mysteries and marvels of Web 2.0 by the free 'tech-help'.
Now, my comfort with the personal computer or the laptop or the Web is not all that bad, considering that despite being from Bangalore, I am not the IT, let alone the IIT, type. I struggle to keep up with the changes in technology, but am invariably behind the curve.
In the recent past, just as I was feeling comfortable with the ability to mine the Web for all the information that it has in such rich abundance -- just Google the key word and a whole world opens up -- I have felt left out of all the activity that I see around me: of Facebooks and MySpace, of You Tubes and e bay.
I am told that it is not enough to understand the Web; you ought to change it too, to borrow the phraseology from good old Marx. What is at work here? The evolution of Web 2.0.
The Internet and the World Wide Web have no doubt changed the universe. Though the roots of the Internet go back to the eighties, the popular growth in the www was from around 1994. Come to think of it, not all that long ago, but in terms of the pace of change in high-technology, it is like a century ago. And now, the talk already of a newer model!
The term Web 2.0 to denote something significantly different in the evolution of the Web was coined by Tim O'Reilly, a guru in analysing macro trends in Information Technology.
As it happened, soon after my experience with Rohit, I got an opportunity to listen to O'Reilly, himself. Like the archetype of the Silicon Valley leaders, he was dressed in the required style: a black T-shirt, blue jeans, a mike clipped to his shirt enabling him to move restlessly around the stage and a funky PowerPoint presentation. Let me distill what Web 2.0 is all about, using some of the insights that I gathered from this interaction.
The core principle of the new mode seems to be that it is participatory. It is a Web that becomes more useful, more people use it. Also that it is non hierarchical, democratic, open and non-authoritarian. If these seem like political concepts rather than programming bits and bytes, it is so because there is an almost political principle at work in Web 2.0: it is that knowledge, information and entertainment need not be owned, controlled or handed down; they can be collectively created and mutually shared. It is the use of the Internet as a platform: go there, use it and build what you want, and share it with others.
If you think of it, all of us, computer users, are already familiar with some of this at work -- be it in blogs, in feedback to stories and columns on rediff, or while reading reviews on Amazon. But let us look at an example of what is really changing in version 2.0.
In the none too distant past, as students or scholars, we went to dusty libraries to look at Encyclopedia Britannica. In my generation, it was regarded as the fountainhead of all knowledge and we trekked to the somber gloom of the university libraries and took out one of the hefty volumes with great reverence. We imbibed the information on whatever we were seeking, say, nuclear fusion or Roman civilisation and the article itself was regarded as the last word, penned by an authority. (We, of course, did not try to find an entry on 'Bollywood music' in the many volumes, important though the subject was). This was in ancient times, shall we say twenty years ago!
Then came this encyclopedia online in 1994 and you could access the same information but on your laptop in your home -- if you were lucky enough to have such resources, of course. The mandatory trek to the library and the search in hallowed surroundings under watchful eyes became unnecessary. But the nature of knowledge dissemination from an authoritative source continued. You could, of course, supplement the information by going to Yahoo groups or reading other sources, but you were essentially a passive participant.
Then came Wikipedia in 2001. The very word 'wiki' means something collaborative and it is always a work in progress. Any entry on it is created by people like you and me. Its essential difference from Britannica is that it is a collective project that can be built, revised, refined and changed continually by readers. The project has now acquired some norms and guidelines to lessen the free-for-all nature of the activity, but it is still a participatory and collaborative process.
To take another example, this time from the world of entertainment, till recently music or movies were disseminated by established channels. It was owned, controlled and sold. You Tube is changing it and making it more anarchic. Not only does it allow the amateur or the enthusiast to put out his/her favourite bits and pieces of film, humour or whatever for the amusement -- or the boredom -- of the rest of the world, it also provides an outlet for his own creativity as well.
It is a platform for you to mount and broadcast whatever pleases you and is virtually free. And damn the consequences! Hence the character of Web 2.0 in terms of 'let a billion voices, noises, music, movies, farce and nonsense find outlet'. And there are other ventures such as My Space to project ones profile, Flickr to share photos or images, 'twitter' to tweet like a bird to be heard by friends and so on supposedly to build bonds in the cyber space.
The implications of all this are yet to be fully understood. They were sufficiently significant to make the Time magazine decide that the Person of the Year in 2006 was 'YOU' -- you as a user, creator, collaborator in all this community activity.
Is all this unalloyed good, even without going into the troubling question of how many people can really partake in the process which depends on the access to computer, bandwidth and digital capabilities? One is not very sure. The social and psychological ramifications of Web 2.0 are still to be seen.
A few points can be made, however, at this early stage. On the positive side, there are the participatory and liberating aspects: in Web 2.0 applications every one has a voice, a potential audience and is free to participate -- be it e bay or Wikipedia or You Tube or a Blog. These act as enablers allowing you to communicate, connect, broadcast etc earning you applause or ridicule.
On the other hand is the disregard for expertise or reliability that such a free for all, results in. In the babble of voices, the caution and consideration vanishes and accuracy is sacrificed for speed.
On the social side, networks such as Facebook or MySpace may create a vast net of cyber friends, but in the process may dilute the intimacy and authenticity of real face-to-face friendships. As it is said, 'the net brings distant friends closer but drives close friends somewhat distant'. The cyber world can get so addictive that the real world loses its hold, sometimes.
But these are some preliminary observations. It is early days as yet and what is certain is that like all technology Web 2.0 will irrevocably and irreversibly change the way we interact with the Web and with each other. Where it will take Rohit and his generation is not for us to know, just as yet.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
B S Prakash