It is often claimed that the Soviet Union was destroyed by information. Yet, this was before the Internet and today’s many means of access to information was available. It is also clear that the fires of more recent revolutions were fanned further, than was ever possible when the Berlin wall came down, by the ability of ordinary people to utilise, what are now known as social media to keep in contact with each other and be informed of what is happening. With the exponential expansion even over the last few months of Web 2.0, the collective term for all forms of interactive online communication, it is important for social scientists to get a grip on the wide-reaching implications of these developments.
Although they have been in existence for only a few years, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, You Tube and Blogs have become an integrated part of people’s lives. Yet these well known interactive media are already being overtaken by thousands of others such as: MySpace, Digg, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Flickr, QQ (in China), Vkontakte, Bebo, Skyrock, StudiVZ, Netlog, Tuenti, Badoo, Fotolog and many, many more. The social and political consequences of this change in the World Wide Web from becoming a source of information to becoming a major form of social interaction is increasingly challenging to predict. So the current special issue of Contemporary Social Science devoted to the Social Dynamics of Web 2.0 is very timely.
Interestingly, and importantly, the special issue has two Greeks as its guest editors, Charalambos Tsekeris and Ioannis Katerelos, from Panteion University in Athens. They include contributions from Ghent, Arizona, Tallinn and Halmstad in Sweden and the Oxford Internet Institute, showing that this in area of inevitably international significance. So whilst in the UK incitement to riot, and rumours circulating the web have been a cause for concern that have led to court proceeding, in places like Greece and Estonia, only recently free from totalitarian regimes, Web 2.0 is seen as a powerful democratising influence. This divergence in attitudes towards Web 2.0 is itself an illustration of how much we need to understand of what is happening in virtual reality.
Studies by social scientists are revealing the mind-boggling complexity of Web 2.0 and the many different directions in which it is pulling. These directions can be distinguished, in part, by the ownership of the social media. Many are still proprietary, owned by corporations that can use them to their own ends. These tended to be the first wave of the interactive internet. The more recent developments put the content firmly in the hands of the consumers, notably blogs and all the similar media such as You Tube and Twitter. Consumers become ‘prosumers’, being both producers and consumers.
The research shows that the prospects for this expansion in social interaction changing what it means to be a citizen, becoming a ‘digital’ citizen, should not be idealised. There is still a long way to go. Studies of websites set up by governments and other organisations, such as the traditional broadcasters like the BBC, reveal that at the moment there is a considerable amount of sharing of information, relatively little direct contribution to the knowledge that is used by those organisations and extremely little active collaboration in the creation of the knowledge and information that is the basis for institutional decision making, whether it be the European Union, or BBC Radio 5 Live.
However, the vast numbers of people involved in one way or another in the Social Web does open up ever widening possibilities for social research. Virtual communities and virtual worlds offer the possibility for collecting social science data on an unprecedented scale. This in turn provides the basis for computational modelling that earlier generations could only have dreamed of. But the quality of the material on which these models are based does need to be cautiously evaluated. Much interaction on the internet consists of sampling rather than digesting, browsing rather than studying.
Nonetheless, despite the inevitable weaknesses of these new forms of social interaction consideration of Web 2.0 is throwing new light on the essence of being human. The conventional interpretation of the Darwinian imperative is that human beings are inevitably in competition and only held back from destroying each other in the fight for survival by the flimsy patina of social conditioning. The current socio-economic assumption, that guides so many theories and policies, is that people are motivated entirely by self-interest that is shaped by the hidden manipulation of market forces, perhaps modified or driven by the gloved metal of central government.
Yet Web 2.0 is showing us that more optimistic ways of conceptualising human interaction is possible and probably more fruitful. Given appropriate means the Social Web presents a picture of co-operation that is much more dominant than competition. Hopefully, the reflexive study of interpersonal interaction in Web 2.0 and beyond will facilitate the development of ever more fair-minded, moral, transparent and, crucially, easy to use systems that will contribute to a peaceful and sustainable future.
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