The very features that were lauded as part of Web 2.0 are now cause for concern on today’s Internet

One part of Web 2.0 was harnessing collective intelligence, a principle that encapsulated different aspects like informed search, hyperlinking, and other features which can be summed up to say that users were going to (and now have seen) an Internet that they increasingly played a role to create. Search results were made relevant by aggregating insights about what users were clicking on. GPS data became more personalized after walk-routes were collected. The Internet became more personalized as, the thought went, the creators became more diversified.

However, while the pace of Web 2.0’s development has been exponential, it has grown asymmetrically. Asymmetric information exists in both the contributors to its growth and the outcomes of it. First, the vision that everyone could arguably contribute towards the “collective intelligence” has been challenged. Second, the outcomes of this “collective intelligence” has been more eerie than first imagined — where the Web 2.0 summit response paper saw the example of being able to have customized results to a query for pizza in your neighborhood as net good, or at least net no harm, we have seen far more pernicious repercussions to that level of geospatial data access. Ultimately, fleshing this two-pronged asymmetry out, I believe that the problems we are seeing today on the Internet are not unseen or unimagined challenges, they were in fact features that Web 2.0 envisioned albeit through an optimistic lens.

First, it requires no deep understanding to know that the Internet as we know it today, all over the world despite efforts in India, China and elsewhere to fight this, represents to a certain degree a soft export of the United States. Culturally, the language we speak online on mainstream platforms is American in nature: look at GIFs, memes, even joke tropes: “That feel when.” So much of the mainstream web, including the platforms and design we use to access the Internet, is a product of American industry. In that vein, I read the finding posed in the Web 2.0 Summit paper that the era of Web 2.0 will result in a race to acquire and control data assets as synonymous with a race for everyone except the United States, but a race to ultimately no avail. Since the paper’s writing, we’ve seen American companies charge monopoly rents from the use of data and be seen as a conduit to access the Internet entirely, thinking Free Basics and Google Fiber.

Domestically, we see an asymmetry in who controls the Internet as well — those who develop the apps, contribute online, have access to the Internet vs. who is affected by the data collected. Looking at Google search results for queries like “Families” or “Black men” results in a visible difference from what the early Web 2.0 imagined — a democratic and reciprocal data-in and data-out relationship between those who shape the web and those who interact the web. Instead, we are seeing those who shape the Internet are often a limited cohort of people. This becomes pernicious when instead of search results, we are talking about dynamic web platforms like Shotspotter or other crime-data apps. These examples demonstrating American hegemony online and the whiteness of technology suggest that the vision we had of Web 2.0 was not wholly incorrect or far off, — search and the Internet has harnessed our collective intelligence. Instead, it perhaps predicted that its exponential growth would be consistent with growth in humanity’s kindness or some sort of exponential growth in society’s capacity to correct for its wrongs.

Getting to exponential growth in society, we see that a second primary asymmetry is that while Web 2.0 saw exponential growth, we did not see a concurrent growth or emergence of Gov 2.0. The outcomes of Web 2.0 then may have subscribed to a vision of social good or net good contained to the Valley and hyper-optimism, but it doesn’t surprise me that getting more people into the fray, with their own complexities and tendency toward ruin, have taken a platform for collective intelligence and manifested close to collective harm. Government while very good at a lot of different things, has not been able to catch up to the pace of development or growth online leaving them both isolated from its growth and the growing expectations of a new generation of constituents, but also incapable of curbing immoral behaviour online without a deep understanding of it. The policy challenge for the government is similar to the growth of Web 2.0 — visually I’d see it as whack-a-mole. Is the entire game broken: should the government pursue a luddite approach and just banish the web for its flaws? Should we attack digital access or hiring in tech if the problem is that the data being put into the programs is flawed? Should these dynamic platforms not collect geospatial and personal data or profit off of it? The questions are endless, but reading the Web 2.0 comes close to answering the question about where some of problems begin.

This post was written for a class called “Internet Business Models & U.S. Policy” taught by John Battelle at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs.

Torontonian from Bombay in Brooklyn. Digital rights, immigration, and the Census. Read me on aunties: