My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Why Web2.0 Matters: Preparing for Glocalization

Recently, i found myself needing to explain Web2.0. Unfortunately, here’s a term that has been hyped up in all sorts of ways with no collectively understood definition. The Web2.0 conference talks about the web as a platform, a business-y concept that i find awfully fuzzy. Technologists and designers have differing views focused on either the technology and standards or the experience. Even Wikipedia seems confused and cumulative definitions are not inclusive. Buzzwords associated with Web2.0 include: remix, tagging, hackability, social networks, open APIs, microcontent, personalization. People discuss how the web is moving from a read-only system to a read/write system and they focus on technologies like GreaseMonkey, Ajax, RSS/Atom, Ruby on Rails. Of course, others talk about the paradoxical relationship between openness and control. The reality is that when people talk about Web2.0, they’re talking about a political affiliation with The Next Cool Thing, even if no one has a clue what it is yet.

Personally, i don’t find comfort in any of the business, technological or experiential explanations. Yet, i do believe that a shift is occurring and i find myself emotionally invested in it. So then i had to ask myself: what is Web2.0 and why does it matter? The answer is glocalization.

Glocalized Networks

In business, glocalization usually refers to a sort of internationalization where a global product is adapted to fit the local norms of a particular region. Yet, in the social sciences, the term is often used to describe an active process where there’s an ongoing negotiation between the local and the global (not simply a directed settling point). In other words, there is a global influence that is altered by local culture and re-inserted into the global in a constant cycle. Think of it as a complex tango improvisational dance with information constantly flowing between the global and the local, altered at each junction.

During the boom, there was a rush to get everything and everyone online. It was about creating a global village. Yet, packing everyone into the town square is utter chaos. People have different needs, different goals. People manipulate given structures to meet their desires. We are faced with a digital environment that has collective values. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in search. For example, is there a best result to the query “breasts”? It’s all about context, right? I might be looking for information on cancer, what are you looking for?

A global village assumes heterogeneous context and a hierarchical search assumes universals. Both are poor approximations of people’s practices. We keep creating technological solutions to improve this situation. Reputation systems, folksonomy, recommendations. But these are all partial derivatives, not the equation itself. This is not to dismiss them though because they are important; they allow us to build on the variables and approximate the path of the equation with greater accuracy. But what is the equation we’re trying to solve?

On an economic level, globalization has both positive and negative implications. But on a personal level, no one actually wants to live in a global village. You can’t actually be emotionally connected to everyone in the world. While the global village provides innumerable resources and the possibility to connect to anyone, people narrow their attention to only focus on the things that matter. What matters is conceptually “local.” In business, the local part of glocalization mostly refers to geography. Yet, the critical “local” in digital glocalization concerns culture and social networks. You care about the people that are like you and the cultural elements that resonate with you. In the most extreme sense, the local is simply you alone. There is certain a geographical component to the local because the people in your region probably share more cultural factors with you and are more likely connected to you in network terms, but this is not a given. In fact, the folks who were most geographically alienated were the first on the digital bandwagon – they wanted the global so that they could find others like them regardless of physical location.

When the web started, the hype was that geography would no longer matter. Of course, we know that now to be utterly false. But the digital architecture did alter the network structure of society, allowing interest-driven bonds to complement geographically-manifested ones. Web1.0 created the infrastructure for glocalized networks.

Glocalizing Web2.0 Systems

Glocalized structures and networks are the backbone of Web2.0. Rather than conceptualizing the world in geographical terms, it is now necessary to use a networked model, to understand the interrelations between people and culture, to think about localizing in terms of social structures not in terms of location. This is bloody tricky because the networks do not have clear boundaries or clusters; the complexity of society just went up an order of magnitude.

Our first rough approximation at this was the individual vs. the collective. The personal is critical – it is the maximal localization and contribution stems from the individual first. Think about tagging – it’s all about starting with the individual and building into collectives. But the goal should not be universal collectives but rather locally constituted ones whereby one participates in many different local contexts. This is critical because the individual and the collective do not exist without each other; they are co-constructed and defined by their interplay. Individual identity gets crafted in context of a collective and collectives emerge through the interplay of individuals.

Social networks give us a vantage point for seeing the relationship between collectives and individuals. As such, they have been at the root of the Web2.0 narrative. We want to understand how people and collectives are interrelated in order to support local needs. Articulation was the first step but, more than anything, it let us understand how broken our questions are, how complex the structure is. These models are not good enough for Web2.0 but they are a decent initial approximation.

Reputation systems emerge to help localize the social structure, to indicate contextualized trust, respect and relations. Reputation is not a universal structure, but one deeply embedded in particular cultural contexts.

The complex relationship between personal, local collectives, and global must all be modeled in glocalized networks for Web2.0 to work. We need to break out of the global village model, the universal “truth” approach to information access. We need to situate information access in glocalized culture. Folksonomy is emerging as a dance between the individual and the collective; remix occurs as individual and collective responses to the global. They are forms of organizing and situating global information in a glocalized fashion.

Glocalized information access does not mean separate but equal. Instead, globally accessible information needs to be organized in a local context where meaning is made. Recommendations emerge as a way for local collectives to organize information, sitting on top of individual recommendations combined with networks and reputation.

Institutional Structures

In addition to the techno-social systems that are being developed to allow for glocalized information access, there are institutional structures at play. While Open APIs certainly have political cachet, they are also critical to glocalization. People want to slice information for local cultures; this means that the local cultures need to be able to do the slicing rather than rely on institutions that are more likely to create universal organization schemas. No organization has the diversity necessary to build all of the different glocalized systems that people desire.

The structure of companies is also critical to Web2.0 and there is going to be an interesting relationship between innovative start-ups and big corporations. Startups can focus on particular technologies and build for specific cultural contexts, but they do not have the resources to build the larger infrastructure. This is where big companies come into play because they will be the ones putting the pieces together. Yet, the responsibility of big Web2.0 companies is to provide flexible glue to all of this innovation, to provide the information infrastructure that will permit glocalization, to allow for openness. Big companies span multiple cultural contexts but if they try to homogenize across them, they will fail at Web2.0. They need to be stretchy glue not cement. Cement works when you want a global village, when you want universals but it is not the way of Web2.0, it is not the next wave.

Conclusion

Web2.0 is about glocalization, it is about making global information available to local social contexts and giving people the flexibility to find, organize, share and create information in a locally meaningful fashion that is globally accessible. Technology and experience are both critical factors in this process, but they themselves are not Web2.0. Web2.0 is a structural shift in information flow. It is not simply about global->local or 1->many; it is about a constantly shifting, multi-directional complex flow of information with the information evolving as it flows. It is about new network structures that emerge out of global and local structures.

In order for Web2.0 to work, we need to pay attention to how different cultural contexts interpret the technology and support them in their variable interpretations. We need to create flexible infrastructures and build the unexpected connections that will permit creative re-use.

It’s important to realize that Web2.0 is not a given – it is possible to fuck it up, especially if power and control get in the way. Web2.0 is a socio-technical problem and it cannot be solved in a technodeterminist way. Technology needs to support social and cultural practices rather than determining culture. Technology is architecture and, thus, the design of it is critical because the decisions made will have dramatic effects. Digital architecture is unburdened by atoms but it is not unburdened by human tendencies for control. We’ve already seen plenty of digital architects try to control the flexibility of their artifacts rather than allowing them to morph and evolve.

Web2.0 requires giving up control and ownership of information; information is meaningless to someone else if they can’t repurpose it to make sense of it in their context. It is for this reason that technology is not enough – there will be political features of Web2.0 as technological development and cultural desires run head-on against legislation and political support of old skool information organizations. This is why IP and copyright issues are also critical to Web2.0.

Web2.0 also requires keeping local cultural values consciously present at all times. There is a great potential to be problematically disruptive, to destroy local culture while trying to support it. We all have a tendency to build our needs into technology but the value of Web2.0 is to allow everyone to build their needs into the technology, not just those doing the building. Trampling culture would be devastating.

For Web2.0 to be successful, technology and policy must follow glocalized needs and desires. This will be a complex and challenging process full of complicated issues as technologists, designers, social scientists and politicos engage in an unknown dance with very different values and pressures. This dance can and probably will disrupt nation-state and institutional structures; these groups will work hard to stop the destruction of their power. Neither China nor the RIAA really wants Web2.0 to happen and folks like them have the potential to really foul it up.

Those who believe that Web2.0 is the way to go must take on the responsibility of focusing on the people first, to keep them and their needs at the forefront of your mind while you design and build, re-design and re-build. Let the technology and business follow the desires and needs of people. Otherwise, Web2.0 could completely collapse or simply become a tool for the maintenance of structural power.

I will say, it’s an interesting time to be in the Valley. There’s so much potential and i really want to see Web2.0 go as far as possible in supporting a meaningfully distributed glocalized society.

Special thanks to Barb and Marc for helping me think through this.

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54 comments to Why Web2.0 Matters: Preparing for Glocalization

  • Hi…this is a good article!
    At the moment, I am attending a course at university and we have the task to summarize something about “Web 2.0″ in a Wiki!. I just wanted to leave a comment. You described this very well and I like the amount of content you described and how it is linked. Great job.

  • Good article on web2.0. Thanks!

  • Great essay!! You explained everything very clearly and linked all the areas together perfectly.

    On another note, your area of work and study greatly fascinates me. I myself have a strong interest in Social Software; mainly the business process side of Internet development but understanding the societal and cultural implications of communication on the web; will help in determining what the next wave of applications could be.

    I’ll continue to following you along.

    Thank you.

  • [...] Danah Boyd put me into thinking the relationship of startups with big corporations in front of web 2.0. [...]

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