Thursday, November 02, 2006

Web debates

The social dimension of the internet is getting more and more important. Even the "old media", newspapers etc. who publish their news and other "print" material in the web, have adopted interactivity and are combining the traditional editing/publishing models with "new" interactive possibilities of the web. This means, that in addition to printing the news you'd otherwise read in the newspaper, you can now discuss in the forums operated by the publishers. So, in addition to organising information in a web-sensitive way (by interlinking documents and sources of information) these services now allow different ways of social engagement with the information, in addition to the traditional transmitter-receiver -model.

This is not just an extension of the good old "letters to the editor" -function that most newspapers have provided and still do, it's more about having a social way of making sense of the events and news provided by the service. The same news can be covered in so many different ways, depending on your "ideology", background and opinions. In Britain, your choice of newspaper tells quite a lot about your political views (or lack thereof if you read pretty much any of the tabloids). For example, whether tax cuts are good news or bad news depends on your political views.

Social networking is the hot thing right now. MySpace, Facebook, Orkut and countless other sites are growing at an insane pace, as people sign up and create their own pages and then link them to their friends' pages, join communities and discussions etc. There's a very "teeny" sense of competition, as the number of contacts serves as a quantifiable measure of your site credibility, but these sites have real importance as well, Orkut seems to be popular among young professionals especially in India and in Brazil, while MySpace has been used as a promotion channel for musicians and bands. Facebook has focused on college students and has lately been used more and more as a recruitment tool by companies.

All these websites and other forums (and of course online games) allow you to connect with people from around the world, and that obviously can have positive effects. But, I have grown very skeptical about these lately.

This could just be phd-angst, but I'm annoyed by discussion forums, most comments on some of the blogs I occasionally read (TechCrunch, for instance), and the behaviour of people on these places in general. It seems that the option to comment or to interact has increased people's willingness to talk, but nobody is listening anymore. It's not rare to have 5 people say exactly the same thing in comments to any post on TechCrunch, for instance. Also, these discussions tend to get more polarised than ever in real life, so rather than bringing about compromise and understanding they tend to just "radicalise" people or at least their internet personae.

In the Helsingin Sanomat website the new feature is to link news with discussions on the HS forums, and the first comments are shown underneath the news. And from those you'd think that most readers of the paper are cynical right-wing bigots. I try to think of them as sad unemployed bald little men sitting in front of their computer writing their little rants here and there, but they still can ruin your day. If there's something in addition to prejudice and racism that I really hate, it cynicism. People so often confuse it with being analytical and critical, and it often blends with incessant and equally intolerable smugness.

Anonymity is an opportunity, as many people couldn't openly share their views under their real name. It can also act as the great equalizer, you can be respected based on your opinions and argumentation rather than title or status. The former issue is actually very important for freedom of speech and development towards (hopefully) democracy in the otherwise oppressive countries. But, the good idea of having a freedom from status and personal history and benefit of being judged by actions not appearance is spoiled by people who don't know what these freedoms are for and why they might be important. Being anonymous is for some people the same as being irresponsible. Most of these people spoiling other people's fun or even useful projects are probably American or European teen-aged boys testing their limits.

Wikipedia is a good/bad example. Allowing anonymous editing has resulted in bitter editing wars in most political or politically sensitive topics, or topics that are related to religion. There's a parallel project now, called Citizendium, where anonymous editing would not be allowed and there would also be editors who would have decision-making powers on what to edit and how. I heard somewhere that wikipedia was contemplating disallowing anonymous editing as well, not sure if I was dreaming or if it is happening or has happened already. It seems that the idealistic paradise of an open and universal, socially, racially and economically "blind" internet is never going to happen (even within the societies that can afford mass-access to web), and balancing control with freedoms seems to be important.

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