An article in today’s SF Gate caught my eye. It’s title included the word “Webocracy,” so I knew right away that it must have to do with web 2.0, Silicon Valley, and the like. Like the term “folksonomy,” “webocracy” captures the new in something old. In this case, democracy done online, retooled and perhaps even improved. Folksonomy, similarly, refers to a kind of social economy that bypasses traditional markets but which uses online markets and economies instead. I’m no fan of analogies used as explanations, especially when the new thing isn’t well understood yet. Analogies refer us to something familiar — in this case democracy and the web — but the claim that this thing is like that thing has a communicative function but little more.
Let’s unpack this one real quick then. Webocracy. Is the internet, and more specifically, the world of web 2.0, a new kind of democracy? It is grassrootsy, it does invite direct participation, it does threaten traditional modes of political engagement (e.g. bypass the lobby(ists), go straight to the back, where the power is…) but it’s not a political system. The web is a communication and publishing technology, one that now delivers audio, video, and other modes of information and communication. But it’s not just a technology. It’s becoming an integral part of all manner of social phenomena (to wit, YouTube as the new TV, MySpace as the new marketing media). Technology plus culture give us new social practices.
It’s the new techniques (technology = technique or application of a rationalized method) for communication that fascinate me, and the ones that seem to affect us at the core most of all. I don’t think web 2.0 companies or phenomena represent a new political system, as might be suggested by the term webocracy. The same could be said for the term folksonomy. But there’s a change of mode, of connection, of the relationship between individual and information, individual and individual, and individual and mainstream media taking place whose engine is web 2.0.
I call them talk systems. And where they get interesting is when they offer a marketplace, and they create an economy. I think those are the phenomena catching our attention these days: online markets in which economies based on recommendations and social networking create a different kind of consumption, one that is moved by communication between consumers instead of messaging and marketing by mainstream media. I call mySpace mini media, in opposition to mass media: it’s got all the stuff off a medium, but its content is its own culture (a culture which often refers to mass media messages, images, events, celebs, etc.).
If you figure that a market simply makes goods and services available, and connections between buyers and sellers possible, but that an economy involves the people, their consumption habits, desires, choices, motives, etc, then clearly an online marketplace isn’t enough to get anything going. It’ll need users, and those users will need to know how the market works. It needs to exist, to find expression in common culture (it needs to be seen and talked about). So in addition to a market that connects goods, buyers and sellers, and an economy to organize the people and their economic consumption (note that an online dating service has a market, and an economy), the system has to be seen, has to exist. Here’s where “mini media,” or online phenomena like YouTube and MySpace, veer off from the phenomenon of mass media to launch something new: they exist through the communication of their members.
So where traditional mass media use magazines, newspapers (e.g. print media), radio, and television, all of which broadcast their messages, these new web -based media reproduce themselves through communication among members. Like other media, they exist by observing themselves, but these observations are given us not by pundits, djs, hosts, anchors, journalists… Observations of the medium are produced as ratings, votes, tags, bookmarks, blog posts, comments, etc. A very simple flow gets going (it’s been called viral but it’s got nothing to do with viruses. viruses are duplicated perfectly when transmitted. communication doesn’t work that way, it has to be compelling if it is to circulate). That flow is an economy, one that picks up signs, assigns value, has speeds and crowds…
Talk, talk, talk, is the observation mode of web media. User participation. Social interaction. Instant messaging, posts, comments, email to friends, forward, bookmark, tag and rate, vote, vote, vote. What does all that do? It assigns value, assigns value. It’s a different medium: a mini medium in comparison to the mass media (if you think money), a medium that for the most part serves as commentary on and observation of the mass media (hence its value to marketers), and which is “susceptible” to its own delusions, rumors, gossip, trends, and wipeouts. YouTube and MySpace are not produced by corporations, they don’t occur over those media (radio, print, tv). It’s no accident that these phenomena have remained where they are: online. That’s where they can lay claim to a new social practice: the talk system. And perhaps the talk marketplace, the talk economy. (The term is social media, social software, but the social is talk).
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