The commercially driven nature of Web 2.0 has been stressed by many commentators, for instance Tim O’Reilly in his influential essay of September 2005 “What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software“. Thus when I first looked at MySpace a little before O’Reilly published that text, rock bands clearly knew how to promote themselves to a new (as well as their existing) audience via this site, but writers and artists on the whole didn’t. The later two categories of would-be culture industry ‘professionals’ tended to use the internet as a means of advertising (largely ineffectively) what they were doing, rather than integrating their activities into it. Since MySpace made streamed sound central to its platform, musicians found the site was tailor made for them, and it didn’t require much adaptation on their part to benefit from it.
There were and still are very few professional artists on MySpace with notable exceptions like Martin Creed and Jane Pollard/Ian Forsyth; most of the art profiles are either for complete amateurs or run by fans of dead iconoclasts like Duchamp and Warhol. The majority of artists I encounter in London don’t seem to like the web very much (among other things it doesn’t allow them much control over the way their work is viewed and who sees it, which is why they prefer galleries), but Facebook attracts them as a networking tool. On Facebook gallery artists fit in very well alongside suit wearing culture industry professionals and corporate managers with their spreadsheets and calculators. If gallery artists have work they want to sell and that really is their bottom line, those artists working on the web (and doing more than simply publicising upcoming shows and reproducing catalogue essays) are more likely to have something to say or at least formalist concerns they wish to explore. Strangely beyond those involved in genres such as conceptual literature (Kenny Goldsmith is the most prominent figure in this field) or perhaps cyberpunk, even fewer writers than artists show much interest in the internet as a creative tool, despite the fact it is language based and offers enormous scope for ‘social sculpture’.
Moving on, the developmental model many Web 2.0 businesses work with is offering a service either cheaply or for free in order to mine data from their users. Web business ‘guru‘ Tim O’Reilly doles out advice along the lines of: ‘leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web… For competitive advantage, seek to own a unique, hard-to-recreate source of data… The key to competitive advantage in internet applications is the extent to which users add their own data to that which you provide…. Involve your users both implicitly and explicitly in adding value to your application…. Set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application…. When benefits come from collective adoption, not private restriction, make sure that barriers to adoption are low. Follow existing standards, and use licenses with as few restrictions as possible. Design for “hackability” and “remixability.”… Don’t package up new features into monolithic releases, but instead add them on a regular basis as part of the normal user experience. Engage your users as real-time testers…“
In recent years networking theory has made much of the notion of weak ties. The pioneer in this area was Mark Granovetter in the 1970s and by the late 1990s his work had been combined with Stanley Milgram’s research into how many links separate people from each other (the so called six degrees of separation) by mathematicians Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz. These ideas were later popularised in mass market paperbacks like Mark Buchanan’s “Small World” (known as “Nexus” in the USA). A completely ordered network (where every node is tied only to its neighbours) is inefficient in terms of its degrees of separation: but when some long distance ‘weak ties’ are thrown in these massively reduce the number of moves needed to get from any one node to any other. Thus from the perspective of networking theory MySpace is superior to both Facebook and Bebo since it encourages weak ties as well as networking among established friends (Facebook and Bebo actively discourage users from befriending people they don’t know). That said, those ‘virtual’ communities that go beyond ties to a single platform and that aren’t committed to capitalist business practices are infinitely superior to anything MySpace can offer.
Web business ‘gurus’ like Tim O’Reilly recognise the strength of collective activity, but they attempt to recuperate it for individual gain. Their world is one in which everything revolves around a bottom line; their outlook is essentially behaviourist, web surfers are enticed to click through links and to buy something (anything). Business data miners are interested in what makes someone click through links and make purchases, not why they do it. Thus what doesn’t gain clicks is either discarded or placed so far down search lists that few surfers will find it. This is a pseudo-meritocracy in which whatever is already popular has its position constantly reinforced, and what isn’t popular is buried under a mountain of celebrity trivia in a world that is currently ruled (‘ironically’ of course) by the likes of Lady GaGa. Nonetheless, social networking trends are constantly shifting and while both advertising and data mining on platforms like MySpace are now slicker than 3 or 4 years ago, that particular site is still not exactly generating a huge profit. Indeed, last year saw a small downturn in MySpace and Facebook usage in the UK (see “Is Facebook going out of fashion” – you’ll need to roll down the page on The Guardian site to see this).
So trendsetters, perhaps this really can be the year in which millions more groovers and bloggers break with the digital establishment by embracing a WordPress freakout. The easiest way to do this is to set up a blog on the WordPress site, but I’d prefer you all to be more dispersed and for as many of you as possible to use your own domains…. And let’s start using our sites to really play with the web, to spread myths and confusion, create false identities, disorientate the authorities, and inauguarate communal situations that overflow all the barriers between the so called ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ worlds! Oh and a few backward glances at how we got here wouldn’t go astray either… so if you’re not already familiar with them, look up the Luther Blissett Project, neoism and mail art (the ‘original’ pre-web paper net). “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/ – you know it makes (no) sense!