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April 04, 2008

Here comes everybody... well, some of us anyway

Writing in the Times Higher Education, Tara Brabazon (Professor of Media Studies, University of Brighton) provides an interesting review of Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.  Having not read the book, I can't comment on the quality of this review as a critique, but it does serve as a useful reminder we are too easily fooled into thinking that the transformative changes brought about by Web 2.0 are equally beneficial to everyone.  Of course, they are not.  We live in a digitally divided world and it is arguable whether the gap is opening or closing?

Older citizens, the poor, the illiterate and the socially excluded are invisible in Shirky's "everybody". Once more, the US, and occasionally the UK, is "the world" in the world wide web. The hypothesis is clear: the internet/web/Web 2.0 changed "everything". The question remains: for whom? Shirky states that "the hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society". Yet he is no Bolshevik. His collectivised hippydom hits trouble when dealing with the less palatable/consumerable parts of social networking, such as cutter communities and the "pro-ana" anorexia websites. In response, Shirky simply continues his metaphor for radical change: "it's not a revolution if nobody loses". "Everybody" suddenly evaporates.

When I introduced our OpenID meeting in October last year I spoke about the increasingly varied use that members of my immediate family are making of the Web in general and social networks in particular and used the examples as evidence to support an argument for lifelong user-centric online identities rather than sector-specific institutionally-centric ones.  I think the argument remains valid, but I must admit that several members of the audience made comments along the lines of, "interesting talk, but one that bears no relationship to many of the students we get coming to our institution".

I disagree with Brabazon on one point.  Towards the end of the review she says, "The long tail of proliferating mediocrity, where bloggers link to other bloggers and podcasters namecheck other podcasters, is the great cost of Web 2.0".  I find myself frustrated by the continual association of Web 2.0 and mediocrity, not that I think that is quite what Brabazon is arguing - but there is a danger that it will be interpreted in that way.


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Regarding your final remark: I made a very similar point to some colleagues - I think Brabazon rather diminishes her argument by taking what may be regarded as a 'cheap shot' at the blogosphere. I think that academics, if they do not want to be regarded as elitist, probably need to work hard to avoid giving this impression.

Andy, just for info really - did you know Tara Brabazon herself has a new book - "The Revolution Will Not Be Downloaded" - (available on Amazon). It appears to be a stronger iteration of the points she's making in the THE review.

I'd also agree that the "long tail" of niche, clique and vanity publishing is nothing for Web 2.0 to be ashamed of. If blogs and the rest provide a platform for small groups to twitter away among themselves, keep in touch remotely, and build a "retrievable discourse" - all in an exciting and agreeable way - that's a great achievement. As I said at OR08, "social" is what you make of it: OR08.crowdvine.com doesn't have to be all of Facebook to be valuable to a discrete group for a limited time, any more than eFoundations needs to be TES to be legitimate.

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