International Writers Magazine: Web 2.0 Issues - Archives
Consumer Consumed, or: Harnessing the Cheapest Labor of It AllYours!
Dr. Claudia K.
Buzz, Buzz: Web 2.0
What is Web 2.0? Many people, rightfully suspicious, ask about the
meaning of this new buzzword. Is it a bubble or hype in the style
of the "new economy" of the last century? Does anyone
remember how dot.com turned into not.com practically overnight?
Is this a similar rabbit hole, a place where billions of dollars
potentially disappear without a trace?
Or is it something
truly new, something that will take root deep in the web, yet transcend
its boundaries at the same time?
That could be the
right answer. Lets try it on for size: Web 2.0: the consumer has
a new role. He is now a not-so-silent partner in a business relationship.
Nothing New Yet Everything Has Changed
Web 2.0 is not merely a technological development that opens new opportunities,
a new form of connectivity, for example. Rather, what has developed
is a specific style how to interact with customers and data, a style
that is significantly different from the early stages of the internet
as mass media. Back then, in the early days of web 1.0, the roles were
clearly delineated: companies used the web to offer information; users
called up this information. The medium was organized along the logistics
of transfer of goods: supply heredemand there: not in many ways
different than the brick and mortar economy where every companys
goal (still) is to become the number one supplier of goods and services.
The favorite format of the old web was thus the portal, which, resembling
a brick and mortar shopping center, bundled as many thematic offerings
as possible. In the early years of web commerce, the goal was to become
an online shopping center.
With web 2.0, this paradigm is changing. While "portal" was
the buzzword of the early internet, "platform" is the keyword
for the second act. Web 2.0those are simple applications, giving
users a platform, a framework they can use. The new style, which established
itself in the past few years, also breaks with the old, ordered casting
of producer on one side of the economic fence and consumer on the other.
eBay is a good example for this new format. eBay is not selling directly
(in fact, it insists on being called a "venue"); rather it
offers its customers a place where they can become sellers. Although
eBay offers a sort of safety net for transactions, in actuality, most
transactions regulate themselves. This is the beauty of eBays
feedback system. At the end of a transaction, both sidesseller
and buyerleave public feedback on a variety of the transactions
aspects. While in the world of brick and mortar transactions, the customer
usually remains anonymous, in eBays world, the customer is publicly
evaluated. Thus, in a manner of speaking, the customers of eBay take
on the role of employees of a company. Not only that, eBay offers its
customers a whole range of venues for expression, ranging from discussion
boards about coins or purses to help with transactions gone bad. What
is interesting in these forums is that very few actual eBay employees
participate here; the content and answer providers are fellow eBayers.
That is what makes web 2.0 so special. In this business model, the customer
is not only served; she is also integrated into the transaction. More
specifically, he drives the transaction; he makes (as in: builds) the
business. As with EBay, Amazon.com, too, is successfully deploying this
strategy and defending its dominant market position. At Amazon, customers
review and evaluate books, films, gadgets, clothes, food items, beauty
itemsanything thats for sale on Amazon. Open, public and
often unsparinglyeven very bad reviews are published. For example,
a brief sampling of reviews of various steam cleaners brings to light
the following comments:
"I am so angry that I taking it right back to the store."
"I cannot recommend this product to anyone."
"I got it for $9 on closeout so can't really complain but wouldn't
recommend it even at that price."
"This product shoots scalding water from the steamer nozzle, not
steam. Oh, it worked once or twice (and if you have three or four arms
using it would be as easy as you'd anticipated)."
"I am VERY disappointed with this product."
The customer is not coaxed or persuaded or suckered; she is encouraged
to do the research and exercise her own judgment. Amazon and EBay are
primary examples how to create added value through transparency and
participation. In this way, these companies represent the "new"
An Obvious Trend--The Web Becomes Pragmatic
Of course, neither eBay nor Amazon is new, and in reality the designation
"web 2.0" does not actually term a new completely new concept.
Even applications like blogs and photohosts like Flickr or Photobucket,
which are seen as exemplary for the new web 2.0 codings, have been around
a number of years. Still, the term web 2.0 pulls together a trend because
more and more applications in which the individual aspect occupies the
center role are introduced and meet with success. A curious mix of networking
and individuality is brought together here: two elements, which at first
glance should be irreconcilable, are reconciled through the bottom line.
In the web, one can no longer address only the mass, only the crowd.
Economically, advantages go to those services that offer an individual
design, even if that design comes by way of an algorithm. Amazon practices
an individual buying recommendation, simply by calculating a customers
"Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed
"Customers viewing this page may be interested in these Sponsored
"Customers Who Bought Items Like This Also Bought
Last.fm, a typical web 2.0 application founded by thirteen young Brits,
translates this principle to the music business. If you add a piece
of music to Last.fms player, you will subsequently receive similar
stylistic offerings. The center of gravity in the new services of web
2.0 is individual knowledge, cross-linked and networked, thus resulting
in ever new possibilities. The concept can be described simply: if four
eyes can see more than two, then people together can achieve things
that alone would be anywhere from difficult to impossible to handle.
Instantly, the buzzword collective intelligence is bandied about, with
everyone insisting that this time it is different, that this time it
is not one of many nearly religious or cult-like transformations that
came and went in the early years of the web.
The web has become pragmatic. These are technological platforms which
allow individual users to participatea lot, not so much, or not
at all. Its been proven, however, that these platforms are being
used extensively; to wit: the success of online wikis where users can
share their knowledge about any topic from aardvark to zoology and make
Web 2.0 is not new, but it describes in a word certain elements that
can be unified under this term. This trend indicates participation,
networking and at the same time more individuality. Everyone is allowed
his frame, her area of influence which she can use, in short: a platform
And with content we reach the heart of the matter. ebay and Amazon are
still exceptions in the web: they offer real goods that can be consumed
in the real world. How, on the other hand, does content stack up? Blogs,
photoservices, link collectionsall those new applications that
bundle datais money to be made there? Is this the old hypeall
sizzle without the accompanying steak, in other words, without any economic
Sales of content have always been difficult on the web; web 2.0 does
not change anything in that respect. A user wants free content; rarely
does she want to part with even a few cents. The problem with content
is that costs are frontloaded; meaning costs occur when the first unit
is made; afterwards every copy is free. Therefore nobody wants to pay.
Yet attention (eyeballs) alone is not enough, and it certainly does
not pay the rent. Just because blogs and photoservices are hyped as
prime examples of web 2.0 does not mean they will become the new "Intel
However, the existence of web 2.0, its very presence does create headaches
and heartburn for some of the digital worlds premier players such
as Microsoft. Realizing that licensing and marketing and protecting
software can not be the only way to make money, Microsoft extended its
business strategy and immediately found a new enemy: Google. This search
engine giant, too, is web 2.0. Here, too, money is generated from content
that does not originate with Google itself.
Right from the start, Google was determined not to be a portal. While
other search engines offered a visually busy and cluttered up, thematically
organized page, Googles page is starkly different: empty, except
for the search box and a few lines of text. Yet Google manages to make
money with advertisingnot by way of pop-up windows, online banners
or similarly annoying formats. Instead, the user will see low-key text
messages which can be bought by the advertiser for relatively little
money and which can be integrated into the search engines list
Googles method of success relies on context-related advertising
(described by Google in the following manner: "When people search
on Google using one of your keywords, your ad may appear next to the
search results. Now you're advertising to an audience that's already
interested in you"), and this method is something that Google has
promoted beyond its own site. Everybody with content or wares to sell
can integrate Google on his or her site and receives a small amount
of "click-through" revenue when the ad is actually clicked
by the user (as Google itself advertises on its site: "No matter
what size business you run, you can display your ads on Google and our
advertising network. Pay only if people click your ads"). Is it
only small fries and small time operators? Maybe. But Googles
method has penetrated the web through and through.
In fact, Advertising Age predicted that Google and Yahoo will
compete, in the near future, with revenue generate by the "big
three": ABC, CBS, and NBC. This is a market with a tremendous future,
and Microsoft is not likely to be denied access to it. With its software
products, the company controls an empire which is similar in size to
Googleswith one small drawback: as of right now, it can
not combine the platform with content.
Microsoft: Even Giants have to Change Course
Assistance for Microsoft comes in the way of the prime characteristic
of web 2.0: the linking of contents via keywords, so-called tags. Tags
are important because visibility in the web is not a given; therefore
content tends to disappear among endless possibilities, hyperportals,
links, jumps. During the reign of web 1.0, the solution was to create
a catchy, neat (i.e. not too long) or even memorable internet address.
This concern has virtually disappeared for content providers and programmers
doing business in web 2.0 applications: now one operates on the basis
of keywords/tags which are programmed during the uploading of blog-entries
or pictures. These keywords/tags can be searched for and found via Google
and specialized blog search-engines such as technorati.com.
This development favors Microsoft because users, in ever increasing
numbers, move toward understanding software as service. For Microsoft,
this means that the company will have to find different forms of licensing
and move into the service sector. Content will move into the foreground,
and the distance between computer and internet (which, in web 1.0, was
predicated on the idea of "web browser", i.e. a window into
the web) will diminish.
Negative Comments? No ProblemThey Can Work to
How does one market to blogs? It is not an easy task. Often entries
are very personal and designed to broadcast a certain level of authenticity.
Traditional advertising campaigns tend to flop miserably here. Transparency
is the order of the day. Thus even negative comments can be positive
for a product. Consumers today are savvy enough to understand the difference
between trolling commentary (in net parlance a troll is someone who
intentionally posts controversial or contrary messages in an online
community with the intention of baiting users into an argumentative
response) and authentic critique or praise.
Especially corporate blogs have to walk the fine line between the platitudinous
and the plausible. Merely publishing press releases on a corporate blog
is a quick way to kill all credibility. Communications about products
are read and believed by fewer and fewer people; after all, constant
rain of marketing lingo has done much to immunize consumers against
nearly all forms of marketing techniques. Therefore, even negative blog
commentary by users can serve to underscore a companys dedication
to responding quickly, positively, and especially effectively if a problem
is brought to their attention. After all, customers like it when a company
is actively concerned about its products.
New and Improved: No, Really! The Consumer can Answer
In theory this new paradigm means that public relations departments
will have two responsibilities: one, direct communications outward;
two, cover communications in-house, toward business processes which
must be understood, responded to, altered, and ultimately result in
improved production processes. Here, too, the customer partakes in the
business transaction in a wholly new way. Today, communication is a
two-way street; not only toward the customer, but also from the customer;
he can and will answer. She may even disagree
Dont Need no Stinkin Problems!
What could possibly cause problems in this brave new world of web 2.0?
Arent connectivity, people power, interactivity, sharing, and
collaboration good things? After all, Time Magazines Person of
the Year 2007 was YOU! What is wrong with you? The problems with web
2.0 are manifold, but revolve mainly around two issues: ownership of
content and information privacy. In order to understand the gravity
of these issues and the potential fallout, lets step back and
look at what web 2.0 aims to achieve: a global social net where business
news, information, videos, and viral ads zoom through the people net
and stick for a moment or two to a couple of eyeballs, hopefully, at
every interesection before zooming on to the next knot in the matrix.
The global supernet is being built, with Google and Microsoft tinckering
with the global social platforms of the future, and therefore with a
wholly new form of marketingin the future, your friends and contacts
on the web will form the basis of the marketing platform of the superweb.
Microsoft, never one to sleep through a new development, recently bid
500 million dollars for a five percent interest in Facebook. This is
possibly a very good investment, considering that every time a Facebook
user makes an addition to his particular slice of the platform, all
his contacts are informed of this change. When a Facebook user adds
an application, sponsored by Red Bull, of stone-paper-scissors, this
piece of information is transmitted to everyone on that users
contact list. If one adds the possiblility that so-called profile-pages
can be mined for user-specific information and thus directly-related
marketing, one can realize that Facebooks estimated three percent
weekly user growth, opens immense possiblities. No wonder that voices
in the web 2.0 world are calling for a global graph of all social networks,
a system, in other words, that collects and connects the social graphs/connections
of all other networks in one giant metanet, open to all: a true open
Users are told that this will bring benefits in terms of not having
to register for each social network because the metanet will recognize
them and transfer all their contacts from other sites into one convenient
One such place is fuser.com. It advertises itself as "the coolest
way to unify your mail from multiple accounts. View your mail and social
networking messages in one convenient location. It's easy and secure."
Certainly, this offers an integrated, easy experience for a multi-tasking,
multi-netting user, if developers keep their promise of keeping data
and information private and secure. For marketing gurus, however, the
advent of this new supernet, this completely new connected platform,
is a dream come true: a net where each amazon.com item bought, each
song downloaded at i-tunes, each plane ticket purchased at Orbitz is
connected, connectable, and, best of all, available for immediate transmittal
to all contacts on the users list of contacts. Is ease of use
worth total, global transparency?
In the past, citizens have worried, at times louder than at others,
that information technology has created unprecedented opportunities
for government and private industry to collect, organize, and share
information on individuals. Yet to many the danger seems remote and
diffused: a few extra pieces of targeted junk mail, another telemarketer
calling in the evening, another on-line form to fill out. Why fear the
modern electronic information market? After all, no totalitarian Big
Brother with hobnailed boot lurks in our homes; no one stares back from
our televisions. The danger seems subtle, difficult to grasp. Yet it
makes us uneasy. Nothing, however, connected with web 2.0 is designed
to make consumers feel anything but at ease, coddled, and catered to.
Notice the extra friendly fonts, the cute, cuddly names. Could that
lullaby of safety, ease and you-centeredness be a siren song, luring
consumers into total information awareness? Notice the growth of "I"-report
platforms at all so-called main-stream-media outlets. CNN, Fox, CBS,
NBC, ABCthey all want YOU to provide the pictures, the words,
the moving images. If you have them, upload them. The more YOU do, the
less WE have to do. Consumer-generated content has been a growing buzz-word
among marketers in the last year. While Converse and Sony have both
aired user creations on TV, the majority of consumer-generated content
has been shown online.
Dove and Frito-Lay are two more recent companies that encourage user-generated
advertising. Recognizing a trend and getting consumers involved with
its products in wholly novel fashion, Frito-Lay has moved into the consumer-generated
content space in a big way, and its main focus is on television. The
Pepsi division solicited ad entries from users, through a contest on
Yahoo, for a Doritos ad, and the winning ad was run during the 2008
Super Bowl. Said adironically, perhapsfeatured a mousetrap
and a giant rodent.
Thus encouraged, we all turn our cellphones and I-phones to interesting
scenes, upload them the YouTube, and hope to become an overnight celebrity.
"Dont tase me, bro!" In addition to the thousands of
surveillance cameras in all public spots on every possible square foot
of earth (and dont forget Google Earth!), the ubiquity of personal
scene-taking-making-recording devices can be witnessed by the growth
of video uploads at YouTube. I tube, you tube, we all scream for MY
The attention on the self, the narcissismlatent and otherwiseinherent
in these incessant recording sessions is naturally the domain for another
paper, but it should be pointed out that the increasingly important
convergence (or at least coexistence) of "spectacle" and "surveillance"
makes it possible, of course, both to see and be seen simultaneously
and continuously. What makes today unique, however, is the merging or
at least coexistence of the two, making it possible and among some people
(even) desirable to see and be seen continuously and simultaneously.
In the extreme, the potential becomes more real that society will (or
at least can) be understood as nothing but a medium through which everybody
can watch everybody all the time and across and throughout all space--nothing
more than a totality of images and spectacular relationships. Perhaps
a thought or two can be devoted to a society so bent on self-definition
via hi-def images: what type of animal has to show its relevance to
itself to believe
in its own existence? Imagine the sort of panic
this animal might feel if the battery of the I-phone is empty, and the
animal is rendered thus
The issue of information privacy and the potential terminal connection
to something very much like Jeremy Bentham's model penitentiary, the
"Panopticon", will become a pressing issue to discuss with
great urgency as electronic data gathering travels and enters into our
lives under the guise of ease of consumption. Individuals under an uncertain
but invisible panoptic gaze exhibit a kind of anticipatory conformity
with the rules, which becomes eventually internalized. Consider also
that in the near future, nearly all merchandise will be equipped with
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking so that every purchase
you make emits a radio frequency from the store shelf, to your home,
to the landfill. We want to consume, and if we have to offer ourselves
up to the marketers in order to have our needs fulfilled, so be it,
no? Or are we entering a tremendous clockwork, composed of ever smaller,
ever more subtly 'adapted' gears, gears naturally adapted to our "meet
our needs" created and otherwise but gears that will,
nonetheless, one day grind us into finely consumable bits and bytes?
Happy meals for all.
The other problem involving web 2.0 is that of ownership of content.
In web 1.0, a small number of paid writers created web pages for a large
number of readers. As a result, people got their information by going
directly to the source: Adobe.com for graphic design issues, Microsoft.com
for Windows issues, and CNN.com for news. Over time, however, more and
more people started writing content in addition to reading it. This
had the effect that there was too much information to keep up with.
We simply do not have enough time for everyone who wants our attention,
and visiting all sites with relevant content is not possible.
Web design and marketing during web 1.0 was all about building compelling
places (or sites) on the Web. But content can no longer be contained
in a single placeat least not without going against the nature
of the social web and locking up content in a secure, firewalled, and
password-protected, for-pay site. Experience has shown that sites that
charge for content rarely do well and quickly abandon the scheme.
Web 2.0 then is about building event-driven experiences, rather than
sites. And it is no coincidence that Really Simple Syndication (RSS)
is one of the key building blocks. RSS feeds enable people to subscribe
to content and read it in an aggregator any time, without extraneous
design. Because content flows across the Web in RSS feeds and can be
remixed along the way, marketers and designers must now think beyond
sites and figure out how to brand the content itself. As a result of
the remixing aspects of web 2.0, most content will be first encountered
away from the domain in which it lies.
In terms of copyright and ownerships issues, a sort of Pandoras
box has been opened. After all, critical voices have called web 2.0
participation of all without any guiding authority or adherence to role--a
type of chaos theory in action. Anybody who can type and who has access
to the web, can participate: as reader, producer, buyer, seller, player,
gangster. Ownership relevant to web 2.0 processes, problems or solutions
does not rest with the individual but with the group; therefore, power
relations are fundamentally changed. Marxist theorists wax misty-eyed
nostalgic in terms of methods of production (of communication or knowledge)
not being allowed only to the "haves", but to nearly everybody.
The social net as socialist paradise, so to speakand the 100 dollar
laptop for every child. But before we get too comfortable, join hands,
and sway ecstatically to "Ode to Joy", lets remember
that Blogs, Wikis, RSS-Feed, Mashups, Tagging, Folksonomy or even the
Semantic Web are merely the underlying technologiesdata wants
to be free is old web 1.0 news, after alland not a true philosophy
of sharing. If you believe otherwise, you should realize that web 2.0
is being sold, right now, right here, as the next big thing to turn
passive consumers into active ones--ones that build, for free, what
they will buy back, later, with time, money, energy.
The Wisdom of Crowds?
The new business model is really the old business modelmeet the
new boss; the same as the old one: while mainstream media still cry
crocodile tears over the blogospheres competition, and where some
people believe that the new world is a world in which "the former
audience", not a few people in a back room, decides what's important,
the "old" people in the back room have long figured out what
tempts this particular bear to dance: the illusion of ownership, control,
and lack of manipulation. Make no mistake, there is a race on for market
share, and the winner will be the company that first reaches critical
mass via user aggregation and turns that aggregated data into a system
service: the mousetrap snaps shut.
Claudia K. Grinnell - March 2008
Director, The Write Place
The University of Louisiana at Monroe
Department of English
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