Network sites and their limitations

On: October 3, 2011
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About Leonie Nijenmanting
New Media enthusiast, especially interested in participatory practice. Read more about participatory culture and research on Pearch In addition, I'm a rock climber and one of the bloggers for Vertical Athletes

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The growth of the Internet has made us reconsider concepts that stood strong for decades. Boundaries that we knew have disappeared or shifted to an extend we could not have imagined in the early 80’s. What is private and what is public? We share much more information freely, with a larger audience which we canno see. What happens to our data? The things we post on the Internet do not just stay in one place; it is often shared with others, or at least used by companies for targeted advertising. What about time and space? We can communicate with people all over the world at any time, with the same ease as having a conversation with the student sitting right next to us.

The Internet allows us to access information from anyone, anywhere. With such an overload of information coming to us, we have to make selections. Rather, we need technologies or software that filter this information for us. Google is probably the most well-known information filter. Based on previous queries, Google predicts what results I want to see when I search for something. But even on a more basic level; accessing all the data that supports websites would be a lot harder if we didn’t have interfaces that allow us to read the text and see the images as is. Press cmd+U to view the source code of a website, and you’re relieved that someone took the effort to actually format that data in a much more accessible way.

This data tells us much more than the 'translated' page we see in our browser.

All these ways of dealing with data and code allow us many outlets of expression. We do not need a professional anymore to edit photographs or make a website; there’s hundreds of options online that allow me to create a web page without any knowledge of the code that goes behind it. I can edit photos in a very advanced way with software that is often freely distributed online. We have all become experts.

Not only can we all take away this knowledge from these networks, we can contribute as well. Wikipedia is the prime example, allowing us to create a full encyclopedia and edit it. There’s possibilities to add your own article and to contest facts that were contributed by others.

Networks do not only facilitate our individual needs, but also allow us to be social. There are many different social network sites, but Facebook has become the biggest in the Netherlands. We share our experiences and chat with friends. Even people I can’t meet in real life because they live too far away, I connect with on Facebook, and based on their pictures and status updates I know what they are doing.

The above mentioned benefits of networks and the Internet have in themselves some downsides as well. Google may offer me search results, but it’s not that easy for me to get around the filters Google has established for me. I am restricted to the format they think is best. The same goes for Wikipedia; it looks like an open-source platform where I can contribute and leave my mark, but there are strict rules and anyone that doesn’t comply risks to be banned from the network.
These restrictions do not only come from the network, but also from our social interaction with the Internet and networks. What I post on Facebook is what I choose to post. So what I know about my friends is only what they decide to share with me. Reading status updates therefore not really tell me how my friend is doing.

While in our offline lives we have to preserve energy and make efforts to not wear out our environment, the Internet seems like a parallel universe, an inexhaustible source of data, which we can shape and reshape endlessly without ever ‘wasting’ any of it. The Internet comes to us as a world that almost seems shaped by orderly models that make sure everything runs well. A world where we can all be free, where we can rectify the wrongs. A world that changes the fate of people.

However, this seems like a too optimistic promise for something that still is, and will be, the product of mankind. Humans built the internet, and the Internet is dependent on human actions. It grows from the good, the bad and the ugly. I can find everything online: the good, the boring, the important, the trivial, the fascinating and the repulsing. There are activist writers, and reporters, but also terrorists, stalkers, and amateur hackers online.

While more information about me is available online (whether I put it there myself or it was put online without me knowing or consenting), it is also used more. This can be positive or negative. It’s easier for possible employers to find me, but my private information, even when encrypted, can still be hacked into. This is why governments and large corporations still fall back on more traditional technologies.

These networks we participate in help us to be more connected. We can access more information anywhere, anytime. We do have access to a broader range of opinions, but as Cass Sunstein and others have argued many times before, most often we are still only confronted with similar points of view, due to social and technological inclusion and exclusion mechanisms.

The expectations we have of the Internet are very idealistic and do not always cover enough the fact that we are – unavoidably – confronted with a human-machine interaction which for now does not answer to the promise of it being an intelligent machine that thinks on its own. We built the Internet, and we can take out what we put in to it.
Therefore it might be worth to study more the data, rather than looking at information that has already been mangled through filtes and technical devices that decide how it should come to us.

The above video is a TED talk by Tim Berners-Lee, talking about a new web of open, linked data that can be reshaped all the time. In this time and age, set outputs of data are completely outdated. We want data to be moldable, be able to remix it ourselves. Our social culture today requires more access and opportunity to data and data management.

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