What’s wrong with Web-cynicism?

On: October 22, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


Furl Todays Popular Posts (snip)Whether you’re the latest social networking site out of Silicon Valley, or a lowly blogpost fueled by coffee, plans don’t always work out. I started writing this post with the title The Wasteland of Web 2.0, and was going to describe my experiences with Spurl and Furl, two social bookmarking services in the worst kind of disrepair. What drew me to them was not their Flickry names, but that they both lacked an icon on Mashable’s list of social software applications. This can’t even be said about their minimalist cousin, del.icio.us.

I wanted to write about the not-quite-human spam machines that fill up their servers, to the point that Spurl shut down ‘temporarily’ a year ago and has not returned. Furl is faring better, but not by much. With users saying goodbye and LookSmart cash presumably spent, the site is quickly becoming a 21st century valley of ashes. Reading over Today’s Most Popular Sites (see image), it becomes hard to tell what is spam and what is social. (( If I had to profile Furl users based on this data, I would go for depressed Grad students with rockstar ambitions. )) With tongue in cheek I was going to take the practical problem of dying social software and turn it into something more existential.

While this all seems like a perfectly reasonable way to spend the weekend, I soon had doubts. Was this useful criticism, or would it just recycle some well-known laments, such as the claim that Web 2.0 produces nothing but noise? My post had ‘issues’ that needed attention.

A Keenian sense of anti-social software

The cynical view of social software would point out that the best (or most successful) applications are those that make the most use of anti-social behavior. MySpace and YouTube, for instance, advertise as much in their names. And the real emphasis with a sharing site like Flickr is less on interaction with others, and more on interaction with your own ‘stats’ – How popular are my photos? Did anyone respond to my comments? The genius of this approach is that social behavior is a second-order byproduct: Web 2.0 takes the view that the quality of social interaction is positively correlated to the level of individualism. (Remember, this is me being cynical.) There are no group accounts on del.icio.us, and co-authorship on a blogpost requires a plug-in. Instead, social behavior emerges from competition for attention (much as interaction on MMPORGs is explained by the engineered shortage of resources). So alongside Zizek’s concept of interpassivity, one could argue that software is social so that we don’t have to be. Moreover, anti-social software is the condition that produces the Spurls and Furls of the world, the sites we conveniently ignore when talking about the wonders of Web 2.0.

This is only a sample of Web-cynicism, the best-known proponent of which is Andrew Keen. It appeals to me, especially when I hear, say, enthusiastic accounts of the future of YouTube. When I asked the web video enthusiasts what they thought spam would look like in the future, they shot down my question, saying it was something Keen would ask. (They did respond, though, saying that good content would inevitably rise to the top, but that was not really an answer.)

Why sponsored debates never have winners

The cynical view isn’t the critical one, as much as I would sometimes like it to be. It relies on some notion of past social or ethical goodness, much like Andrew Keen has to argue that Hollywood was never that bad, actually. In the Picnic 07 debate between Keen and David Weinberger, moderator Walt Mossberg fell into this trap too, saying that bloggers who accept products they review are ‘compromised’, whereas traditional journalists (such as himself) are free from such restraint. Such a comment not only completely ignores the commercial underpinning of traditional journalism, it reproduces a high and mighty attitude that keeps the non-debate from becoming something useful. Obviously, this is something both sides are guilty of. In another debate with Keen, Weinberger says of the traditional media: “The mainstream is theirs. The Web is ours”.

The two sides also share a habit of making contradictory appeals to ‘the long tail’. Weinberger agrees with Keen that most of what gets put on the Web is rubbish, but then takes issue with Keen’s indictment of the most popular blogs, saying that interesting things actually happen outside Technorati’s top 100. He praises recommender culture, but not its prize products. Keen does something similar. He claims that Web 2.0 capitalizes on the narcissism of the everyday user, getting him to blabber on endlessly, but then says that very same user is too short on time to find good content, and wants better editors. Which one is it? It would be helpful if it were clearer who Weinberger and Keen speak for.

In the end, I think both are selling the same hype, that Web 2.0 is revolutionary, when the jury is still out. It makes more sense to look at continuities between yesterday’s ideals and the problems at hand. Keen argues that the Great Seduction of the Web is the false assurance that we all deserve to be the center of attention. But is this really an effect of the Web? Or is it an extension of the pop culture ‘tradition’ that Andy Warhol made visible? Does Keen really want us to blame the Web for a culture that sustains American Idol?

Failed software for useful history

So it is only with mixed feelings that I can channel Keen and talk about the wastelands of Web 2.0. The allusion, of course, is to The Great Gatsby (available as free e-book). But what Fitzgerald’s book realizes, and what takes some more thinking through in this context, is that the wasteland distracts from the actual problem. As Nick stares out at the valley of ashes from the train, on his way to New York, it is actually (his complicity in) the day-to-day circulation of capital, materials, statements and desires that gives it its life-like form. (( I read the Great Gatsby some 10 years ago. My interpretation here is probably way off, but I’m claiming poetic-theoretical-laziness license. )) What we need, now, is a critical view of Web 2.0 that gets past cynicism and into the details, that wrestles with the paradoxes of Web 2.0 rather than pressing the ignore button. A good start is Software Studies, a project already a few years in the making, nicely summarized by Matthew Kirschenbaum in 2003:

What is software studies then? Software studies is what media theory becomes after the bubble bursts. Software studies is whiteboards and white papers, business plans and IPOs and penny-stocks. Software studies is PowerPoint vaporware and proofs of concept binaries locked in time-stamped limbo on a server where all the user accounts but root have been disabled and the domain name is eighteen months expired. Software studies is, or can be, the work of fashioning documentary methods for recognizing and recovering digital histories, and the cultivation of the critical discipline to parse those histories against the material matrix of the present. Software studies is understanding that digital objects are sometimes lost, yes, but mostly, and more often, just forgotten. Software studies is about adding more memory.

In other words, rather than fetishize Furl and see in it the heart of our Web 2.0 woes, one has to study the fringes, and follow its connections back to the land of the living. Rather than figure out its place and decide what it means, describe what put it there and show why it matters.

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