The Web 2.0 chimera

The panacea of a user-centric "Web 2.0" media not only harms media workers, it provides a poor service to to the public and masks the media's uncertainty about its purpose.

A spectre is haunting the internet - the spectre of user-generated content.

I recently attended the inaugural Maglab seminar at the University of East London. Among the topics discussed was the rise of reader-generated content in the media.

Much of the discussion was focussed on magazines and their extensions into internet-based publishing but my thoughts drifted toward the latest, greatest iteration of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-changing-the-world-forever internet: Web 2.0.

Web 2.0, so-called, is a sham of gargantuan proportions, or at least the current obsession with it in the wonderful web world is.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web back in 1989, has already dismissed Web 2.0, arguing that the technologies being hyped are simply the proper application of ideas and techniques that have been around for many years.

Indeed, but quite apart from such technical issues, here's a thought for you: a media which merely distributes the creations of its consumers, as so many Web 2.0 outfits do, is an entirely decadent one. If the Web 2.0 methodology does engulf the media designers, illustrators, photographers, camera operators, journalists, writers, producers, editors and everyone else sat on the editorial side of the (largely non-existent) wall between commerce and information will suddenly find themselves transformed into mere overheads.

That said, decadent or not, it's a big money business - increasingly so. In 2006 Google bought YouTube, paying billions of dollars for ownership of the site. What was Google - or rather, what were Google's investors - buying?

A web site that can show Flash video? Hardly. Something tells me that someone in Google's army of computer geniuses could have knocked that together themselves. A bunch of amateur videos? Sort of. The main attraction, however, was a huge, ready made audience and a phalanx of producers willing and happy to create the programming for this new kind of television network. At no cost.

Were any of the musicians, artists, video-bloggers, "citizen-journalists" or other contributors whose work make YouTube (a mere distribution platform) valuable, remunerated? Like hell they were. The owners of the distribution network were. The value goes to shareholders, not creators. And yet, share ownership is entirely passive. Capital accumulates in investment not as a result of productivity - or production - but it hoovers up the value that is actually created by production.

There's nothing unusual in that and of itself - in fact, it was ever thus - and I am not disputing that shareholders fund companies that need cash to expand and are themselves taking a risk. That's just how investment works. However, with so-called Web 2.0, the issue is that the investment is minimal in the extreme:

Unlike Web 1.0, where investors often financed expensive capital acquisition, software development and content creation, a Web 2.0 investor mainly needs to finance hype-generation, marketing and buzz.

(Kleiner & Wyrick, 'Info-Enclosure 2.0', Mute, Vol. 2 #4, January 2007, London)

As Kleiner and Wyrick point out, the supposedly co-operative and collaborative media that typically characterise Web 2.0 in fact remains a controlled media owned not by its participants, but by its distributors. Kleiner and Wyrick's concern is that private profit is swallowing the commons and, with it, creativity itself. Maybe, maybe not. My point is something else entirely.

Low pay for creative work is nothing new, but what's happening with Web 2.0 is, in some ways, genuinely new and different.

Firstly, when citizen journalists contribute for free to a news web site, or even for a nominal sum, they are in fact asking to be exploited. This exploitation is not a simple case of being under-appreciated by an employer or even one of being alienated from their labour. The incomprehensible aspect of Web 2.0 is that contributors are lining up to hand over their work for free, not just to the public, but to private companies who will subsequently profit from this work.

A clear analogy can be drawn with GNU/Linux and the free software movement - more particularly it's off-shoot, the open source movement. Free software has been around for decades but really began to gather some momentum in the 1980s as a result of the work of Richard Stallman.

Since then open source software has become rather more business-friendly. So business-friendly, in fact, that scores of unpaid volunteers are now working for free, contributing to projects that make plenty of money for companies like MySQL AB, IBM, Sun Microsystems and dozens of others.

Needless to say, much of the software that drives Web 2.0 is free and open source software. So: not only are what are in effect publishing companies not paying for production of what they offer to the public (usually referred to by the reductionist term "content"), but these mechanisms of exploitation are being deployed atop technologies built at no cost to themselves. At least the industry of yesteryear invested in plant machinery, wages, distribution and so on, ensuring that the wealth created was spread to some degree, however unevenly.

There are exceptions and qualifications to all of this, of course. A individual blogger or a contributor to a non-profit medium such as the Wikipedia, for example - so long as its founder Jimmy Wales's remains faithful to what Jason Calacanis, head of Weblogs Inc., called his "fringe, anti-corporate bent". (As an aside, does anyone else find that comment unlikely considering Wales is a multi-millionaire futures trader and owner of a successful web business?)

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, it strikes me that these companies reliance on their audience for the the creation of material shows a loss of nerve. In the past the media's - admittedly paternalistic - attitude was that it knew best: it knew what the readers wanted, how often the wanted it, what their advertisers wanted and how they were going to give it to them.

Today it is increasingly the case that the media asks its readers and viewers to do the heavy lifting while it spends its time wondering how to "connect" with people - as if producing a decent product wouldn't do that in the first place.
Even massive edifices such as the BBC are quaking at the supposed threat posed by apparently grassroots media - who'd have thought there was room in the pocket of a Reithian dinner jacket for a digital camera?

Nonetheless, the fact remains that, for media owners, having readers or viewers who are at the same time your unpaid producers is an opportunity too good to be missed.

First of all, it's cheap. Really cheap. Cheap in a way that photographers, designers and journalists aren't.

More than this, though, it allows the publications' brands, which are now more important than what used to be between the covers (except for the advertisements, of course) to connect with an increasingly fragmented and difficult to please audience.

By encouraging consumers to become producers, media owners create a false sense of ownership among their readers. Where in the past it was enough to tell people the hows and whys, whether it was the Guardian attacking the Tories, the Daily Mail bemoaning political correctness or a woodturning magazine discussing the pros and cons of a particular brand of lathe. Today publications, particularly those that exist primarily or entirely online, simply hold a mirror up to their readers in the hope that they become transfixed by the sight of something they hold dear.

As a result, 'user-generated content' fulfils the goal of keeping people coming back for more. Or so it seems at the moment. I suspect that this panacea will turn out to be a chimera.

Nonsense, says you - after all, the author is clearly a dinosaur attempting to protect his income by grinding an axe the size of a London bus. True enough, though I have written here before (at some length) on how self-appointed professional priesthoods are not to be trusted. It's not the contributors to Web 2.0 media that are the problem, they are just making use of their creativity in a way that was the sole preserve of a "professional" Eloi in the past.

For media owners the central problem is that the turn toward user-generated material merely a symptom of their own uncertainty about the future: "Quick! There's an interesting-looking bandwagon trundling past, climb aboard!"
What it is not, is well thought-out strategy for engaging with, interesting and, most of all, keeping an audience. Some people will tire of contributing for free and many more will being to question the value of the information with which they are being presented. After all, if the publishers (and I use the term in the broadest possible sense) themselves don't know what they should be doing, what are the chances that the audience will?

The internet may also prove itself to be a rather unreliable distribution network. As someone at the Maglab seminar pointed out (in a different context, I hasten to add) media owners will soon find themselves entirely in thrall to the guardians of the new distribution networks they rely on, be that Google, mobile phone companies or whomever else. And getting access to those internet tubes is becoming more important with each passing day...

The fact that sites such as MySpace, Flickr and YouTube are profitable at all also speaks volumes about the nature of the internet advertising model, more on which some other time.

For consumers the price to be paid will be ever less-reliable information, a focus on subjects of little universal value, increasing intrusion into the formerly private sphere of home life and an incomprehensible morass of material with a very low signal-to-noise ratio. Worst of all, their efforts will not be recognised and what many perceive as a leisure activity is actually becoming a form of unpaid employment, actively generating huge amounts of filthy lucre for investors whose sole contribution has been the purchase of shares - shares in which they expect a return on investment.

If any of this seems slightly incoherent, I apologise. I wrote a significant proportion of it sitting on the flight back from London and then left it unfinished for a fortnight due to illness. Like all blogs, this one suffers from being little more than the random thoughts of one individual.

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