Web 2.0 is Marxism? Think again

February 20, 2006 | Leave a comment

Andrew Keen has an article about Web 2.0 on the CBS News website, posted with the inflammatory title Web 2.0 Is Reminiscent Of Marx. Although I’m certain it’s been designed specifically to elicit a reply from the blogging community and thereby increase Google ranking, ad revenue and columnist name recognition, I felt the need to reply. He starts:

From the French and Russian revolutions to the counter-cultural upheavals of the ’60s and the digital revolution of the ’90s, we have been seduced, time after time and text after text, by the vision of a political or economic utopia.

Rather than Paris, Moscow, or Berkeley, the grand utopian movement of our contemporary age is headquartered in Silicon Valley, whose great seduction is actually a fusion of two historical movements: the counter-cultural utopianism of the ’60s and the techno-economic utopianism of the ’90s. Here in Silicon Valley, this seduction has announced itself to the world as the “Web 2.0″ movement.

What Keen goes on to say is that Web 2.0 effectively promotes narcissism: rather than a media that tells us new things about the world, these new technologies feed us to ourselves. Advertising is targeted directly at us, so in theory we see promotions for things we already use; we find people similar to ourselves and read what they have to say, but none of it is really new to us. We don’t, in short, explore the world; by allowing us to create our own content about our own lives virtually on demand, we’re encouraged only to explore ourselves.

What Keen fails to see is that it’s exactly through these explorations, these connections with similar people, that we learn new things. We only learn more about ourselves if we only consume our own content; in fact, we’re connecting to other people and sharing with them. Etienne Wenger commented on this while defining communities of practice:

Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In other words we learn.

Keen seems to take another view, which is that learning is something that comes purely from above: a sort of top-down hierarchy of knowledge, where in this case established media is the teacher. He suggests that web 2.0 technologies are seriously undermining this establishment: “Newspapers are in freefall. Network television, the modern equivalent of the dinosaur, is being shaken by TiVo’s overnight annihilation of the 30-second commercial. The iPod is undermining the multibillion dollar music industry.” He then goes on to ask, “Is this a bad thing? The purpose of our media and culture industries — beyond the obvious need to make money and entertain people — is to discover, nurture, and reward elite talent.” In other words, he says yes: it’s a very bad thing, because the established media is the vanguard of quality.

Anyone who’s listened to the pop charts in the last fifteen years will immediately call time on that idea; Britney Spears et al do not stand up on musical quality with the music provided by independent outlets like CD Baby. The most profitable sellers have, for some time, been classic recordings made decades ago. In the field of music particularly, the RIAA’s continued actions against music-sharing services seem to be more about shutting down alternative methods of distribution that represent grassroots competition rather than fighting copyright infringement. (Surveys have suggested that file sharers are more likely to buy music, although I concede that opinion is divided.)

There is certainly a case for established media producing quality content. They do have the money, and therefore the facilities, to nurture talent; newspapers and magazines can foster writers, recording studios can make very high fidelity records with well-trained musicians, it takes at a bare minimum tens of thousands of dollars to make a movie. Importantly, news organisations have the resources available to them to provide better factual reporting than most ordinary citizens (even if sometimes they choose not to). But I see little reason why content should be highly regarded purely because of its source. The real value of web 2.0 – really media 2.0, because these philosophies aren’t limited to the web – is that a piece of content by a famous creator is on a level playing field with a piece of content by Joe Bloggs, and therefore is regarded on its own merits. Although social engineering tactics like conventional marketing do have an effect, it’s lessened by the fact that the only way to effectively propogate an idea is through word of mouth. Billboards, banner ads, bulk mailshots, popups don’t work. The only things that are going to get talked about are things worth talking about: if you’ve made an investment, you can’t engineer a return except with quality. In theory, the ideas that will travel the best are the best ideas. This isn’t Marxism, it’s a free market.

In his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (made available to download for free but still selling well), Cory Doctorow idealistically talks about an economy based on reputation; it’s very clearly based on the 2.0 culture he experiences day to day while writing his weblog. While there are services like Opinity trying to duplicate this in real life, I think it’s something that’s happening organically. We’re cutting out the traditional middlemen who would act as a kind of unequal peer review, limiting which content would get to be published, and instead moving over to a system where we link up to people we trust and let them recommend content and ideas to us. The onus is switched over to society to pick and choose which are the best ideas, and what will get published. In fact, much of the same content we always had may get through, because professional writers are often the best, professional singers can probably sing better than you, and so on. Their content will naturally rise to the top. But it will also be easier for the previously undiscovered quality content to rise with them, and with no gatekeepers to the conversation there should be a wider variety of different ideas and different types of content.

Keen again:

Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural “flattening.” No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion — Socrates’s nightmare.

[...] One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.

On the contrary, with a wider gene pool of thought and knowledge to pick from, rather than an elite group of creators, we have the potential for a whole new set of great thinkers to break through. Democratised talent doesn’t mean no talent: it means everyone with talent has a chance to be heard. At the very least, the fact that both sides of this argument can be heard – rather than just his – can only benefit knowledge.

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