CAT | Web 2.0
The standout moment at last month’s eG8 summit in Paris saw Nicolas Sarkozy offer a foreboding warning that the internet must not become a ‘parallel universe without rules’ – only days before David Cameron had been at pains to distance himself from the idea of state regulation of the internet. But why is it that the same morality and rules of law that we defend culturally are seemingly so inapplicable to human interaction over the net? The question is one which is rapidly forcing internet moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, who also addressed the eG8 summit, straight into the ring with political leaders.
It’s clearly an issue for governments and the internet industry to consider. Responsibility for regulating the web has for too long seemed a question impossibly gargantuan, perhaps too hopelessly multifaceted to be properly addressed by heads of state. A more accessible dialogue on what law is needed in cyberspace might have prevented the abuse of its liberal merits by tabloid newspapers in privacy scandals such as the failure of Ryan Giggs’ gagging order, whereby papers stake claim to a better representation of our rights as net-users than law courts do. As with the Space Race and contested rights to Deep Sea Oil Reserves in the antarctic before it, the internet seems to lack the clear geographical or institutional boundaries which would validate an open discussion on its regulation in national or global fora.
Interestingly, Rupert Murdoch was amongst the crowd who received Sarkozy’s assertion that governments must not allow the internet to remain unchecked. Looking at British politics (almost unavoidably through the window of a Murdoch-owned medium), it is hard to argue against any regulation of the internet. Just as parliament and the English courts are sometimes made to look irrelevant by the power of Murdoch’s media and the twitterati masses, Mark Zuckberg also presented the case for an entirely unregulated global space.
Zuckerberg said: “I’m happy to play any role they [the people] ask me to play… the internet is really a powerful force for giving people a voice.” In fact Zuckerberg openly undermined Sarkozy’s opinion througout the eG8, adding: “People tell me: ‘It’s great you played such a big role in the Arab spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people…But it’s hard to have one without the other. You can’t isolate some things you like about the internet, and control other things you don’t.”
It seems the gap between politicians and the public has never been wider. A lack of trust in our representatives – in their motives, spending habits, and fundamental ability to lead has damaged the reputation of MPs and British politics as a whole. The public feel disenfranchised, ignored and, worst of all, completely disconnected from the democratic process. The recent parliamentary expenses scandal has only reinforced this.
And yet, we live in a world in which, in other ways, we feel very connected. The Internet, and specifically, Web 2.0 technology, smoothly connects us to our friends, family, and those with similar interests, tastes and beliefs. The Internet has moved from a centralized source of information into a collaborative space in which we can create online communities, debate and discuss ideas, and build partnerships with people on the other side of the world. And though these interactions may be virtual, they are fortified by all kinds of innovative and powerful tools – from webcasts to wikis to online games.
In comparison, new modes of political participation lag behind. As much as the Internet promises a free, open, democratic space for people from all backgrounds to express their political viewpoints – politicians, the government and lawmakers are failing to connect. Traditional modes of political participation seem old-fashioned and stiff and, there is little conversation between the represented and the representatives. While the web is full of political expression and debate, there are very few sites that represent or collect these viewpoints into a coherent whole. People may be talking, but the people with real power aren’t listening.
Across the Atlantic, the potential of web 2.0 within politics was aptly demonstrated by President Obama’s election campaign and current presidency. Not only does Obama use social networking to connect with supporters, he has also created a website – my.barackobama.com – which allows users to create their own profile complete with a customized description, friends list and personal blog. They can join groups, participate in fund raising, and arrange events all from an interface that is both easy-to-use and familiar to any Facebook or MySpace user. This harnessing of web 2.0 is more than just a way of harnessing support – it actually allows people to a have a political voice, in a way that feels familiar and comfortable to them. The key to its success is that it puts power in the hands of people to shape their own lives and communities to, as Obama puts it himself: “bring about real change in Washington”.
In the UK, there seems to be a real lack of faith in that potential for change – a fact the government is starting to clock on to. They have started several initiatives based around the number10.gov.uk hub – the central government website specifically targeted toward the general public. Matt wrote about it last year following its launch in August 2008. Apart from the weekly (and slightly embarrassing) Gordon Brown webcasts, a plethora of well-presented information about the functions and purpose of the government, there are a number of web 2.0 initiatives. For example, sites like No.10 petitions in partnership with mysociety.org, allow users to start and gain support for their own petitions. But as Stephen Coleman puts it “inviting people to sign e-petitions to No 10 and then await an email from the government telling them why they were wrong is hardly digital democracy”. And within the number10.gov.uk website as a whole, there is precious little opportunity for real ‘e-democracy’, what Jay Blumler describes as “online civic commons: a trusted public space where the dispersed energies, self-articulations and aspirations of citizens can be rehearsed, in public, within a process of ongoing feedback to the various levels and centres of governance”.
As the Obama administration establishes the Office of Public Engagement, designed to bring more citizen engagement through the Web, it is time we use the potential of web 2.0 technologies to create a much closer and accountable relationship between the needs of citizens and the actions of politicians, in which the public’s ideas and beliefs are taken seriously and acted upon. Any future government must embrace this new form of democracy, if it is to have any chance of regaining the trust and support of its electorate.
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‘Hi John, what did you do this weekend?’
‘Not much – Friday night I stayed in, but on Saturday a friend was having a youtube party, so I had quite a late one.’
Not true. No-one I know had a youtube party on Saturday, and the notion of a youtube party is not something you are expected to know about, but are actually not aware of because you can’t keep up with the edgy new media vanguard. However, it’s a sentence which I think is closer to being a standard piece of conversation than you might think, and here is why.
A funny thing happened to me the other night. I was having a drink at a friend’s flat when someone mentioned a clip on youtube that they thought was funny . Without a moment’s hesitation a laptop was produced and we all sat down to watch it, oh how we laughed. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary, you might say. However, what (quite naturally) happened next was that someone else stifled their chuckles enough to suggest another video, which we all watched and laughed heartily (again). This went on for a good half hour, until we all got a little embarrassed and decided to stop being so damned geeky.
Half an hour. Isn’t that quite a lot?
I don’t expect this kind of an encounter is a rare occurrence. It’s certainly happened to me a good couple of times and I imagine 80% of the student population do it all the time. But if you think about it, prolonged, communal youtubery is quite an interesting phenomenon, for 2 reasons: 1, it brings an element of face to face social interaction to the medium which I’m not sure the people who hailed the revolution of web 2.0 ever really meant. 2, this face to face interaction brings with it a whole set of intriguing social rules and dynamics.
Let me elaborate point 1. Web 2.0 was (is?) all about (among other things) people easily creating and sharing content with one another, with the web providing a means by which to do so. People thought it was great that a guy from Uruguay could make a video about knitting which could be viewed, responded to and commented on by my grandma in Poland, or a janitor in Delaware, or the Queen. It introduced openness of communication. But what it also did was introduce content that could be discussed and shared in a personal context, not just by people firing off links at each other down the information superhighway, but shown to one another after dinner, whilst you’re getting ready for a night out, pointed at whilst crowding around a monitor in the office. It provided content people could physically take someone by the hand and show to them, which is an altogether different thing.
Which leads to point 2. For years marketing gurus have been mindful of the fact that you are much more likely to buy something if it’s recommended by a friend. In focus groups we’ve run here at Online, we’ve heard that it’s important to someone sharing a link to something on the internet that they preserve some kind of reputation. If you post lots of trash on your friends’ walls you exhibit a certain lack of credibility that is not insignificant. This kind of thing manifests itself wonderfully if you bring it into a face to face group dynamic. Picture the scene: my friends and I have worked ourselves into a cheerful youtube frenzy via a string of Japanese TV shows, childhood nostalgia, dramatic rodents, and Hungarian rappers. Then someone enthusiastically types in a link to this. The group tries to get into it, but it’s a slow starter, and they fall into an awkward silence. Energy drops. Suggestor tries to pick it back up with this one, but it’s worse. Mumbles excuses. Gets coat.
Similarly you musn’t over share. You’ve got to let everyone in the audience have their say, otherwise they feel left out. You can get the youtube samaritans, who in the face of their friend’s poorly chosen pat them on the shoulder and reassure them that it was funny, really. Picking a youtube video to share with people in this context requires a judgement of mood and possession / lack of sense of humour. You need to deal with those maladroit ‘Hang on, we need to wait for it to load’ moments. You need to be sensitive to what certain people might find impressive, and what leaves them utterly nonplussed. You need to be consider whether they’ve just had their lunch.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s possible to over-analyse this. But in thinking about how these technologies are changing communication we mustn’t neglect the possibility that it opens up new ways to interact with the person next to you, not just the Delaware janitor thousands of miles away. Of course all of these communal internet encounters (’social surf sessions‘, if you will) occur as afterthoughts to what you or I might call ‘normal’ social situations – people just fall into them. But 5 years ago no-one could possibly have imagined the way in which youtube wanders into our everyday exchanges now. 5 years hence? Get your party invitations ready.
So the media outcry about Street View continues. Eric Schmidt (CEO of Google) today defended the roll-out of Google Street View to UK cities by saying that “We agree with the concerns over privacy… The way we address it is by allowing people to opt out, literally to take anything we capture that is inappropriate out… and we do it as quickly as we possibly can.”
Schmidt missed the point with great precision: the reason that many people feel uneasy about Street View is that it is impossible to find out if you are somewhere in there. You can’t opt out if you don’t know whether or where you are even included. Faced with this vast volume of information, it is simply impossible to manage your own digital identity. You don’t know what of you is out there, or how you appear (regardless of how many guilty secrets could have been snapped by Google’s roving cameras).
This is particularly significant if we consider that schools and universities spend considerable time and effort emphasising the importance of digital identities, teaching Twitter literacy, or interview technique (dangers of scandalous photos or inappropriate comments appearing in internet search). Many of us spend a good proportion of free time managing our online identities, whether through Twitter, Facebook, blogging, or massively multiplayer gaming. That people are concerned about the unknowable possibility of their presence on Street View is hardly surprising, regardless of whether they have something to hide.
Still, is it not a bit bizarre that citizens of one of the most CCTV-observed countries on the planet are concerned about a few static frames online? We could regard Street View as an exercise in open access to information, surely a step in the right direction, toward databases that presume freedom of information rather than hide from it.
Indeed, in the wake of exposure of inappropriate surveillance by our own government, it is slightly amusing that Street View now has a black hole where the Houses of Parliament used to be. However worried we might get about practices of surveillance, it is perhaps comforting that the centre of our state feels exactly the same as we do.
The release of any new publically funded website inevitably provokes a tide of articles across the technology pages of the national press. The Queen’s new website, The Official Website of the British Monarchy, is the latest to face public scrutiny.
The Telegraph offers not one, but three articles providing detailed analysis of Her Majesty’s latest venture. In one of them, Julian Sambles reviews the site for its Search Engine Optimization and concludes that, scandalously, there are a number of areas in which it falls short:
- There are 2.6 error pages to every 1 genuine, working page
- Missing pages have no 404 page (‘This is a basic requirement for any website, let alone the Queen’s’)
- The homepage is duplicated and confusingly labelled
- There are inconsistencies in the title tags and the URL structure
- No h1 or h2 tags are present
His conclusion is pretty damning:
It is disappointing that as our head of state, Her Majesty has allowed the creation of a website which should have been designed to engage with her subjects as much as possible but has overlooked the basics of good Search Engine Optimisation.
Dear, oh dear. Queen Elizabeth really shouldn’t have signed off on her own site without checking its SEO.
Aashish Chandarana raises the important issues of accessibility and usability throughout the site, in a second article by the trusty Telegraph, citing the inconsistent use of Alt tags and the same colour applied to both links and standard text. Fair enough – these are pretty basic errors that can make some users’ experiences incredibly frustrating.
I have some more general criticisms of the site. As with the new No. 10 site discussed in an earlier post, why can’t I leave comments on any of the videos? Why can’t I add my own obsessively catalogued pictures of the Royal Family to the paltry selection on some of the galleries? Why doesn’t the LightBox functionality work properly? Why, in the ‘Contact the Queen’ section of this ostensibly Web 2.0 site, can’t I just send her an email? What kind of an egomaniac only accepts communication stamped with her own face?
Why are there only 4 videos of the Duke of Edinburgh? And why does only one of them feature the good Duke? (The National Playing Fields Association 1951 advert is well worth a look incidentally, as he explains to a bunch of urchin-like children how to go about getting a playing field in their community – an issue that only surfaces when one of their number is brutally run down by a car whilst playing football in the street.)
The list goes on, but I won’t. I actually rather like the site – there’s a wealth of archive material and the articles I’ve read were informal, well-written and pretty interesting.
Now, whilst Sambles does sound at times as though he thinks Queen Elizabeth has been personally responsible for designing and coding the site –
– these sort of articles do of course raise some very real issues. It is right that publically funded sites in particular should be rigorously scrutinised, and it is absolutely right that the web should be accessible to all.
The articles highlight a numbers of issues surrounding the pursuit of best practice in our industry, which we should all aim to meet. If our monarch’s site doesn’t follow the basics, where does that leave the rest of us? In an industry so fast-paced, with attitudes and technologies changing faster than Prince Philip can say “Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” to an islander in the Caymans, it’s difficult to stay on top of best practice methodologies.
This struck us recently when we developed a Flash game for BBC Ouch, a site ‘aimed at those with a stakehold in disability’. We do a lot of work in Flash, but it’s notoriously difficult to make Flash content accessible. However, the project gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about and improve in this area. Needless to say, developing for screen readers was a steep learning curve for all of us – and we’d be the first to admit that we’ve still got a lot to learn.
In fact there’s little doubt that there’s much more we – those of us in digital media – need to do to stay on top of usability and accessibility best practice values, however much of an uphill struggle that can be.
“Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed.” (Duke of Edinburgh, during the 1981 recession).
So. The BETT show is over. Online CC spent a great deal of time at the event, which for the second year in a row struck me as an unholy marriage of a livestock pen and a telesales call. I only spent a day at Olympia, but the experience sapped my strength so much that it felt like a week.
I don’t have much of a problem admitting that I didn’t like BETT – it seems to be pretty much unanimously agreed by everyone I spoke to there that time at a show like BETT takes its toll; which isn’t to say that the whole thing is pointless or uninteresting of course. It’s a very good thing for people in the industry to get together like this, and every year some real gems come up, which make the over-priced refreshments and crawling through Learning Management Software stands worth it.
Take Rafi.ki, for example. Rafi.ki is an online learning community which builds partnerships between schools all over the world. Pupils exchange information with one another, embark on projects together, and make friends. Simple? Yes. Worthwhile? Undoubtedly. Successful? It seems so. The gent on the stand (one John Macnutt, lovely guy) pointed out that on facebook, most children simply collect people who are already their friends and remain in those groups. Here was something that allowed children to make new friends, and work together on projects that can be extremely valuable.
Or Roar Educate’s “Us Online“, an ‘online learning module’ which allows children to learn about what exactly you can do on the internet, via the experience of a set of fictional characters. I saw a demonstrator show how a learner can help a girl set up a myspace page, from choosing her screen name and picture to making friends; and it’s only once you’ve set up a profile picture of the character in her underwear and befriendied a suspicious individual called fluffybunny73 who says he ‘likes to play’ that the program takes you step by step through what you’ve done that might have gotten you into such a situation. This kind of digital literacy is working its way up the agenda as people accept that things like Myspace are now a fact of life, and learning through experience and simulation is a great way to get across the idea that your actions in the digital realm are not without consequences.
Or Pixton, a really fun site that allows people to (fairly) easily create and share their own webcomics. I don’t know a great deal about ‘Pixton for Schools‘, but there’s been a lot of talk about video games’ ability to present content to children. Comics, as another staple of my youth, show real potential to do the same.
Rambling around the upper levels I stumbled across some charming gents from Rolling Sound, who run multimedia courses for schools, community groups and young people ‘at risk’. Roll 7 is a recent expansion of Rolling Sound, and are a company making socially responsible video games, actively recruiting from the young people that complete courses at Rolling Sound. Their flagship piece is a game called ‘Dead Ends‘, which managed to make it onto Channel 4 News in its treatment of knife crime. It’s even got Jon Snow in it. I also almost tripped over Serious Games Interactive’s very small stall; these guys make a series of games called ‘Global Conflicts’, which aim to inform on the (extremely complex) issues behind some of the most intractable and damaging conflicts in the world. As ever, I’m a sucker for video games and so must admit to taking a disproportionate amount of interest in stalls like this…
Finally, I did a double take at the back of Olympia Grand Hall when I walked a stand where grown men and women seemed to be playing Dance Dance Revolution on the kind of wet-pour rubber surface that you get on playground floors. It turned out to be Smartus by Lappset, an intriguing hybrid of digital game based learning and physical exercise – whether it’s stepping on marked tiles in the right order, or running round posts as quickly as you can, Smartus has developed installations for playgrounds or indoor halls which have children taking orders from weather friendly consoles. Though I didn’t partake myself, I imagine it to be like performing mental arithmetic whilst playing ‘tag’.
I’m not sure I like the sound of that.
On the internet, keeping up with the times is paramount. The web is practically synonymous with the cutting edge and it wouldn’t do to be caught out lagging. But the problem for those trying to navigate its evolution is that novelty and potential brush shoulders with the shallowness of fashion. When Facebook first grew in popularity in the UK it seemed little more than a sleeve on which superficial teenagers could wear their popularity. But now the site reveals a surprisingly subversive depth, a place for championing causes little and large and organising events both political and playful.
Charities soon pricked their ears up to this, attempting to galvanise supporters in this online hiding place of “youth”. It is not hard to find groups for every major charity, and a few (notably Save the Children and the NSPCC) have even invested in developing their own web applications for activism and fundraising. The NSPCC’s application allows users to sign up to specific fundraising events and to group together to raise the money required. The active connection that these embody is much more inspiring than simply signing up as one member among hundreds in a generic facebook group.
Following its meteoric rise, Facebook overtook Myspace in the Alexa rankings this summer. This had much to do with the Myspace’s failure to sufficiently embrace the use of internal applications on its pages, to synthesise itself adequately with the rest of Web 2.0 technology.
But the embrace of the social network is not without reservations for the charitable sector. At Online, we already commented on Number 10’s fear of the network. Networks are simply antithetical to the privileged centre that dominates in any hierarchical organisation. This is not simply jealous directors clinging on tooth and nail to the control of their brand. What is at stake for the NGO sector is the responsibility a charity feels toward those who give their money and time. If an unofficial group organised by supporters of a charity raises funds by appealing to causes to which the official charity does not actually give, donors have every right to feel duped.
The internet is not simply one channel that charities must be cautious of. It can reach into the heart of how they do business. Kiva is a site where donors can lend capital to people in poor countries who would otherwise find it hard to get a reasonable loan. Many donors feel uneasy about giving to large charities because they use some fraction of donated money to support full time staff. While Kiva does sustain its own bureaucratic framework, it challenges the traditional charity model by producing the feeling of an unmediated social relationship with the recipient.
While social networks usurp central control, and Kiva usurps bureaucratic middle-men, ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) may prove far more successful for activist awareness-raising than traditional pamphleteering methods. Indeed, next to the rise of ARGs, social networking sites seem a little dated in their contemporary online potential.
While some charities are still scrambling to optimise their facebook presence, after months of waiting, Cancer Research UK has finally launched its very own ARG, Operation: Sleeper Cell. Several big names in the ARG business are involved but the main authorship was the outcome of a competition open to all. This follows the success of World Without Oil in proving the ARG a powerful medium for activism. The new Superstruct game looks to fill a similar function in coming months, part of an emerging genre of “ethical” ARGs.
The authors of Akoha, another new project, dub their brainchild “the world’s first social reality game”, seemingly a combination of chain letter logic, social networking and competitive altruism. Whether or not this is a cure to the modern malaise of isolated individualism, these creative collective web-based projects are revealing themselves as powerful means for opening people’s minds (not just their wallets).
It is a tenet of ARGs that it is not necessary to restrict oneself to computer-based media for playing. Phones, live events, television and music are often crucial. Growing portability of web technology, prompted by the iPhone and the scramble of its exasperated competitors, is producing a massively expanded field of possibilities for activism. Being confined to the desk is no longer necessary for using social networks, and the ARG medium is pioneering the furthering of this extension, exploring the consequences of if one had to leave the desk to play.
In ethical ARGs we see an appropriation of the social network for the use of a controlling centre. The puppetmasters who control an ARG are in a position of sophisticated dialogue with the most cutting edge of web technologies, and manipulate these new media toward engaging ends. There is always some degree of interactivity in an ARG, but the story is always held together by the organisers. Akoha is made up of people free to choose their missions, but ultimately all the missions are written by the company.
Here lies massive potential for charities looking to distribute a message, promote their brand, but all the while remaining in control of their own messages. Competing with the big players in social networking is hardly an option, but with the delineation of these new puppetry technologies, piggy-backing certainly is.