Friday, October 12, 2007

Impress Your Professor: The Fascinating, but Perilous Road to Web 3.0

Considering the medium for this discussion, it’s hardly necessary to point out that many of us are acolytes of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. We’re fascinated by the democratization of the internet and our increasing ability to create, exchange, and most importantly shape online content. One doesn’t have to go far in library-land to hear discussions on social-networking sites, wikis, folksonomies, podcasts, RSS feeds, virtual worlds and blogs. And, the trend is not limited to libraries. The growing participatory nature of the web is creating an explosion of new communities worldwide. People are coming together as never before.

And yet, Web 2.0 is also a divisive force because it encourages social fragmentation by increasing competition in the information market. Given greater choice, people naturally select those information sources that best reflect their own views and interests. In other words, people start separating from larger groups and merging into smaller ones they find more attractive. The problem is that many of these smaller groups are actually quite large. Facebook, for example, has around 34 million active users. Over time, this separation leads to polarization. Through continuous interaction, members of these groups begin to develop their own sets of beliefs, norms, and values. They start to view the world and its problems differently. Falling back on the strength of their groups, people feel less inclined to compromise. Finding a middle ground becomes much harder for society.

This development is part of a larger trend that has serious implications for how human societies function. Moisés Naim, the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, emphasizes the growing ability of the “little guys” to take on megaplayers: Wikipedia can compete with Britannica, and Google (formerly a “little guy”) can threaten Microsoft’s dominance. Ambitious and talented people will appreciate this new reality, but Naim warns us that it comes at a price – stability. Central banks have to contend with hedge funds for control of currency markets, and the US has to struggle with ragtag militias for control of Iraq. Some like John Rapley suggest we are entering a new medieval age. Globalization, of which Web 2.0 is one aspect, is allowing for the emergence of multiple, overlapping sovereignties and identities. Knowing who we are and where our ultimate loyalties lie becomes exceedingly complicated.

I bring up these issues because I think we as librarians have a stake in promoting a common discourse. As things stand, the information market is devolving into an information dump. Without the efficient free exchange of ideas human progress will slow or worse retreat. How do we do promote a common discourse? I’m not sure. But I do think this is something we need to be figuring out, especially considering that our world is about to get far more complex.

Businesses, seeing a potential for profit in the merger of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) information and the internet, are spending billions of dollars investing in digital maps and GPS technologies. According to Peter Morville, they believe “people will want to share their whereabouts and profiles with family, friends, co-workers, friends of friends, and potential friends, so they can stop in and say hello.” In fact, some businesses have already put their models into practice (e.g. Meetro). More importantly, consider what will happen when this emerging geoweb begins interacting with the growing presence of RFIDs, the semantic web, and the internet of objects. Generating and browsing internet content will no longer require conscious effort. The simple act of existing will be sufficient (see Socialight).

Will this world-wired web lead to further social fragmentation? Will it lead to a mounting expectations gap between what states can offer and what citizens demand? Who would fill this gap and what impact would it have on our societies? Most importantly for us, what can librarians do to promote a common discourse so as to confront emerging fundamentalist movements that threaten the continued free exchange of ideas and the existence of the democratic process as we know it?

If you’re interested in life beyond Web 2.0, consider registering for Peter Morville’s seminar on Information Architecture 3.0. Among other things, he will discuss some of the challenges and opportunities presented by ambient findability and the emerging internet of objects.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you read the definition by Sramana Mitra on Web 3.0?