Web 2.0 isn’t so awful, guys.

(Response to a required reading for an information science class.)

This post is in response to “The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies” by Bawden and Robinson. I quite enjoyed this article and it presents some important points that researchers and information professionals should certainly take into consideration when utilizing information found on the web. As a Web 2.0 and Digital Humanities enthusiast, I was especially interested in the subsection titled “Web 2.0 and the end of civilization.” Since this section of the article mostly focused on warnings/concerns relating to online content generated utilizing newer web-based technologies, I thought I might try and offer some positive counterpoints below.

I completely understand how unchecked and often anonymously authored user-generated content could be off-putting to the average information professional; however, as the authors noted, Web 2.0 technologies weren’t necessarily developed with formal research in mind. What these new and developing technologies (utilized by sites like Reddit, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, Wikipedia, Tumblr, and Medium) do best is support a democratic sharing of information by offering every person the opportunity to develop a personal voice and to share their stories. In doing so, they foster community development, empower individuals, and challenge mainstream narratives.

When a news story breaks, I typically read coverage on one or two of the big news sources but I find that in many cases the most meaningful and oftentimes current narratives are delivered to me via social media. After reviewing mainstream sources, I check Twitter to see if I can find relevant hashtags and read what witnesses on the scene are saying, how they are doing, and how others are reacting. Next, I search through Reddit to see what additional information has been crowdsourced by users and made available in various subreddit communities. Later, I may search through blogs on Medium and Tumblr to see if I can locate community posts reacting to the event.

One concern noted by Bawden and Robinson is that online communities such as Reddit, for example, have no centralized system for monitoring content and users typically post anonymously. This can prove to be problematic for research but participants do make an effort to ensure quality information is shared. For example, the Reddit community has an user-driven internal checks and balances system (karma and reddiquette) that members of the more serious subreddits generally abide by and I find that most users in these communities want to share good information. Additionally, quality users/links/info are upvoted and gain more visibility while unchecked, off-topic, or biased users/links/information are generally downvoted and disappears fairly quickly. Many users also make an effort to document when edits are made to a post and why the edits were made.

Bawden and Robinson also specifically noted concern for the “loss of identity” inherent in sites that allow anonymous sharing of information. While lack of an identifiable author is problematic, I would argue that on average a good segment of users likely find any “loss of identity” liberating. Anonymity allows people to explore other identities and perhaps share stories and ask questions they otherwise may not have been comfortable/willing to share. Something else perhaps worth considering is that while a user may choose to be anonymous in the sense that they are not using their actual (real life/IRL) name, they are likely using the same name in many places online with the intent of creating an online identity across many platforms. This sort of purposeful branding can lead to some level of online authority and authenticity within a community that may follow a person offline as well. (See mollysoda/Amalia Soto)

While perhaps not always the best source for information professionals, content generated via Web 2.0 technologies does have cultural value and I’m not sure if the authors would be as critical of user-generated content were they to write a similar article today. Since this article was published in 2009, the Library of Congress has taken steps to ensure that the entire Twitter logs from 2006–2010 (all tweets from all users) were archived. Personally, I feel that the benefits of Web 2.0 far outweigh the challenges it presents and I am glad that some of this content is being preserved. When I am a full-fledged information professional, I hope to work for an institution working to archive and/or preserve this sort of data.

References:

Bawden, D.; Robinson, L. (2009). The dark side of information: Overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies. Journal of Information Science 35(2): 180–191.