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The End of Your Life of One-Size-Fits-All Web Content

Web 2.0 technology and its current, epitomized representative, Second Life, is the beginning of the end of your first life.

Web 2.0: the Mongolian BBQ of the Technology World

Sometimes I look at sites such as MySpace and YouTube, and think, Dear God, how completely laborious it's all become. From the consumer side, the amount of information and access to goods is proliferating at an alarming rate. On the producer side, we're in a new stage of the World Wide Web's development called Web 2.0. Suddenly we're all culture workers. This new status allows us to post our own video, audio, and writing for everyone to see. Basically, we (World Wide Web users) are now doing all the work.

I'm growing less keen on Web 2.0. It reminds me of that rip-off dining experience called "Mongolian BBQ". I'm Mongolian BBQ-ophobic. My irrational fear / hatred of them stems from one experience in the early '90s. At a Mongolian BBQ, the customer is presented with an array of ingredients (e.g., raw meats, vegetables, cooking oils, sauces). There are billboards suggesting combinations of ingredients, but if you're feeling zany, you can create your own recipe. Then you shuffle on over to the "chef" who cooks your concoction on an encircled grill while diners stand around and ooo and ahh through a lot of smoky and tasty aroma. Know what? I can watch any number of people cook and pay less for it. The charm of the Mongolian BBQ is lost on me and, I don't doubt, the lovely people of Mongolia. Like the Mongolian BBQ, Web 2.0 smells like a conspiracy to make me work. I don't like working and I certainly don't like being tricked into doing it.

In my opinion, Web 2.0 is a comparably (smoky) red-herring that makes us think that users are winning the battle for control of the web. Yes, users are flooding the web with their own content. But, the window of cooptation closes with increasing rapidity. The pace at which larger corporations, wary of the dot com bust, still snatch up smaller, creative start-ups seems to be quickening. YouTube, just snapped up by Google for $1.65 billion hasn't been around that long and has built a massive audience based on, frankly, some of the craziest and archaic videos I've ever seen. Through YouTube I’ve been able to reignite my crush on 1980s pop star Rick Springfield, re-live Dolly Parton on Hee Haw, and bemoan the fact that my people, African-Americans, will act a complete fool for network news stations by hunting leprechauns…in Alabama. Were it not for some diligent, and perhaps sinfully unemployed, adherents to the Web 2.0 philosophy, I’d never know what I was missing in the world of video. As consumers are taking to creating content, where does this leave corporations? Are they willing to sit back and just act as the platform for our creations?

Examples of the continuing struggle between consumers and corporations could be found at the London Games Summit (LGS), held in October in the UK. Michael Denny, VP from Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studio, raised some interesting questions about corporate reactions to Web 2.0. Though he gave his keynote at a gaming conference, his comments have implications for everything we download. According to Denny: of downloaded files in the UK alone this year, 135,000 were wallpapers, 60,000 were photos, 120,000 were music files, 175,000 were videos, and 210,000 were games by 2010, 80 percent of homes will have broadband connections; and today's 18-year-olds have never known a world without mobile phones and mp3 players. Given these statistics, gaming, music and film companies are scrambling to make the quickest and most profitable use of what they call "UCC", or "user created content". Denny's goal is "hybrid"; "pure" UCC is content that's created almost entirely by the consumer, while hybrid content allows the consumer to create and participate in a manufactured gameworld. In that respect, rather than attempting to fight the consumer by arresting them for downloading or creatively remixing their content, corporations are slowly going to have to shift their priorities. Instead of creating products strictly for the market, Denny says, corporations will need to offer a mix of content and services.

Other examples from the LGS indicate that the industry is working overtime to make their content / services the gateway for UCC. For example, Adrian Hon from Mind Candy introduced many at the LGS to the concept of alternate reality games. Hon's company has been running successfully for two years an ARG called Perplex City. I thought ARG were simply of the Second City-ilk that Yusuf writes about this month (see below), but it was more closely aligned with the hybrid model Denny spoke of. Players enter the Perplex City digital world in a quest to, as a community, solve a mystery and locate treasure. Yet players have gone beyond the predefined confines of the game by creating backstories and props that further propel the story's action. The UCC has gotten so sophisticated, in fact, that Hon claims Mind Candy designers actually refer to the UCC in their production of the game. According to the game’s designers, the main character is supposed to have written a book that is key to solving the game’s mystery. However, the book didn’t actually exist before players took it upon themselves to write it. Game designers now refer to the contents of the user-created book in game scenarios. It's an innovative symbiosis that provokes new questions about media control. Will the line between consumer and producer become permanently blurred? Is the distinction in the creative control or in who's making the profits from the media?

Web 2.0 and corporate attempts to harness UCC are only the latest manoeuvrings in a chess match for control over the media. But if, for corporations, control means assuring profit, and if, for consumers, control is the ability to create the product we want, which really has the upper hand? Are consumers obligated to become producers in a Web 2.0 world? Does Web 2.0 finally allow us, as Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedy exhorted us, to "be the media"? My inner child, lazy little nipper that she is, whines, "Do I gotta be the media?" As a media instructor, what I'm about to say is blasphemy: sometimes I don't want to talk back to the media. I think I’ve hit my limit with being jacked in to technology and being an active member of the Web 2.0 wave means contributing even more time to developing web content. With great Web 2.0 power comes great Web 2.0 responsibility. How much power do you want? And are you ready for the responsibility?

-- Kimberly Springer

Fantasy rules

I spent a large chunk of my adolescence locked in my room, sitting at my desk, 'tippaty-tappatying' away on my keyboard. I would often be told that I sat at the computer too much, that I 'lived' on the computer. However to me it was escapism from the humdrum of my simultaneously bored and hormone-ridden young life. Back then; computers were not a standard part of the furniture as they are today. The computer was exciting and new, and I was discovering and learning as I played on the keyboard. There I was, sitting at my desk for hours on end interacting with my computer and later interacting with the world through the Internet. That was the difference, I didn't 'live' online, and there was a definite division between my real life and the one experienced within the computer screen. Believe me, there was no way I could confuse the two. The Internet then was very much a 'closed' system, with those who could code material (the real techies) providing content for those to whom anything more than http:\\ was alien. Alas, I wasn’t the whiz back then.

Now we're all being bombarded with Web 2.0 content, the amalgam of already present web technologies presented in a palatable array that allows for unprecedented user interaction. UCC, as it's fondly known within tech-circles, or User Created Content, is the future (and present) of computer usage. Broadly speaking this covers everything where the user is in control (or thinks he is): YouTube, Blogs, Podcasts, and virtual reality gaming.

I could take the cynical view; media companies want us to get involved so they no longer have to do anything 'cept make mucho bucks. Kinda like the two weeks you have to spend doing work experience, where the employer gets some spotty school-kid to do the worst jobs but gets none of the credit. I don't want the equivalent of a spotty school-kid with a video camera telling me on his YouTube entry all about his awful life, when actually he really has everything and is just an ungrateful mongoose.

But I’ll try not to be so cynical. I’m sure Web 2.0 is the way forward. Essentially these services are merely providing a great user interface, thus truly harnessing the free publishing capacities of the Internet and making them truly accessible to the everyday user who may have no knowledge of complex code. For example, iWeb allows you to create a professional website in minutes, Second Life allows you to create complex animations without knowledge of 3D imaging software. Such programs easily reduce the number of clicks it takes to get your 'baps' online while removing any quality checks for what is posted. Thus, they create a cyber space where there's a whole lotta rubbish floating around.

The most topical of these 2.0 technologies is Second Life. For those who haven't been bombarded by it (yet), Second Life brings together social interaction, commerce, media, and potentially anything else on the 'net and gives it 'form'. Second Life creates a 'real space' on the net, complete with neighbourhoods, islands, and people. There is a pseudo real economy; you buy Linden Dollars with your real money, users add money to their accounts, create an online persona, and away they go. My explanation simplifies the vastness that is Second Life. You can buy everything from new facial features to property -- anything you can create you can buy and sell. You character doesn’t come with genitals so you can also buy yourself a penis if you wish to indulge in online sex from, say, a male's experience. Anything you can't do in your real life you can do online even better. In Second Life, there is no waiting in long airport lines -- you simply lift off and fly yourself. Or if you've a fear of flying, you can transport about much characters like the in Star Trek.

I learned about this 'game' from a friend many moons ago, when Second Life was in its infancy. Now it has truly taken off with over one million members and tens of thousands clogging up Linden Labs' registration systems on a daily basis. The game has garnered profits for many corporations that have integrated their products into the game by creating real (that is, real real, not fake real) businesses online and global brands are now positioning on prime 'real' estate -- BBC and American Apparel are amongst those who are promoting or selling their services and products within the Second Life sphere.

The game itself is a hodgepodge of styles and tastes. Because you can fly from place to place, there is very little 'infrastructure' like roads and public spaces. One user can have has his land with a castle next to another who has chosen to erect a modern home. Despite the free reign on creative licence, most people simply create an extension of their existing lives online. The character they create resembles themselves, and they merely add those things they feel they can't have in their physical life: the big house, the nice car (even though in this world, cars are useless) and so on.

There is a real sense of community to be found in the artificial confines of Second Life, something people may feel their real lives have lost or never had. I tend to forget that at the heart of the 'game' there is a community, and what Second Life is trying to do is present a unified 2.0 user experience in a format we can truly relate with. No longer do you sit in front of boring text in an IM session but you can get together and chat with your friends in your online flat; shopping doesn't have to be scrolling through a webpage, but walking around a virtual shopping mall.

Slowly these systems will develop so as to truly integrate your real life and your virtual life. You'll be able to buy shoes online for your character and have the same pair delivered to your physical address. Fancy seeing a top DJ perform? Cyber-boogie on down to a club in Second Life – you'll always find a good seat. Exhibitions and concerts, gambling and shopping, sex and dinner parties -- why step outside your door when you can do it all online in a virtual world? We won’t be opening up Internet Explorer in the future, but our Second Life browser. We will be able to seamlessly communicate and hear the Web in the language of our choice, you and your Chinese friend will be able to speak to each other even though neither of you can understand the other's natural language. True, seamless communication is becoming possible.

But I don't see the point of spending hours on the net in this virtual world, going to a virtual mall to buy virtual clothes for my virtual persona, then going to a virtual club and virtually dancing the night away. You get the point. I'd rather step outside and enjoy such things in my real life. I'm probably taking the whole thing too seriously. Web 2.0 is no more than an extension of our imagination, a shared dream space, where citizens of the world can get together and give form to their wildest fantasies after the drudgery of the day job.

The future, it seems, is largely a virtual environment; it's a place where corporate content, mixed content (user + corporate), and sole UCC is presented through a 3D interface. Web 2.0 isn't alternate to our reality, but rather it runs parallel -- a virtual extension of the physical self. For the first time, average humans with the means and access can give 'form' to their pipe dreams and imaginations in a communal space. We can all be equal in our dreams. In lieu of getting off our very real chairs and making a difference in this first, real life, perhaps this, at least, gives us something to rejoice?

-- Yusuf Osman

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