the trouble with web 2.0

the other day, i went to a workshop for phd students. no one was sitting there on their laptops half listening while they blogged or looked at web comics. everyone was sitting attentively, making notes on paper, with pens!

i told this story to luke last night. i was telling him about how perth has not yet been taken over web 2.0 craziness that is going on in north america. i’m not talking web 2.0 just in terms of flickr and wikipedia and round corners and crazy colours and folksonomies and all the other usual suspects (they aren’t really big yet here either), but the greater cultural movement surrounding it all. it’s what i can only describe as the web 2.0 hipster culture which i was happily partaking in until i ran away to perth to do my phd. it’s people working at starbucks on their on their black macbooks covered in stickers of web 2.0 and open source brands. its the workaholism, the capitalist leftism and the melding of the gift economy with for-profit enterprises. it’s the the blurring of personal and professional, of leisure and work. it’s having your friends and people you know professionally adding you on facebook. it’s the “unconferences”: barcamp, torcamp, drupalcamp, campcamp, all with 5000 pictures taken with digital slrs complete with the official tag on flickr. its the implicit belief running through all this that old power structures are being overturned, that we’re fighting the man. when in reality, old hierarchies and power structures are being reworked and reproduced. web 2.0 brands are the new man.

i have a complicated relationship with web 2.0 (both the tools and the culture). i loved sxsw (which i would argue is the king of all web 2.0 conferences), it was the most amazing week of my life and i met incredible people. i love my macbook with all my stickers and my slr and my flickr account and my livejournal. i’m addicted to checking all my digital hang outs to see if anyone has commented on a photo or added me as a friend. but when i use the term web 2.0, but cringe a little each time. i didn’t really know why before, but now i realise i’m totally complicit not only the left’s overwhelming lack of critical analysis of web 2.0, but an often unquestioning endorsement of its ideologies and brands. sure, the ideology behind web 2.0 is openness, participation, empowering the user, but lest we forget that most web 2.0 services (save wikipedia) are for-profits, and run by either google or yahoo. all good lefties should know the problems that come with big corporations and for-profit orientations. we didn’t like nike for selling us a lifestyle rather than a shoe, which was made in a sweatshop. i articulate my identity with my choice in web 2.0 services and how i use them (and whose stickers i put on my laptop), just like i buy starbucks so i can walk around with the cup looking hip, or nike shoes so i can feel athletic. google has 10 years of my search history and myspace owns my profile. yahoo helped send a chinese journalist to jail. why are we any less angry, or at least less critical? how did we forget all the anti-branding, anti-consumerism, no logo stuff from the 90s? is it because we really are consuming ideas and symbols in the truest sense, rather than physical commodities?

along with these more abstract economic, political and semiotic issues, web 2.0 technology and culture are further facilitating the very real encroachment of work into every other facet of life. being in such a completely different work context of a phd in a city like perth really helped me to see this. at first it annoyed me that i couldn’t get wifi in the cafes and my internet access sucked. it drove me crazy that i actually had to go out in the real world to find stuff, rather than find the information online. and i didn’t like it that no one used upcoming or flickr. but then i realised why this was the case i saw that this lack of 2.0 was actually a really good thing. perth is a really laid back place. people go to cafes to relax, not work, so they don’t care that there’s no wifi. there isn’t even a starbucks here. everything closes around 5 or 6 most days. there are lots of holidays where nothing is open and the few places that are charge a 15% holiday tax because the poor souls who have to work that day have to get paid shitloads for their trouble.

as my friend collette noted, wifi is both a liberator and an enslaver. if its possible to do work anywhere because of wifi, then it becomes expected. if you can do things so much faster because you can just do a search for it online, then you’re expected to do everything quickly. its expected you’ll do so much more everyday. you get 5000 emails instead of talking to people in person or on the phone.

one of the few critiques of web 2.0 culture that i’ve come across is tiziana terranova’s Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy, which offers an amazing analysis of the political economy of web 2.0 (ironically, before the term was even coined), including a discussion of this shift in work culture. she argues that the process of the “social factory” (made popular by the italian autonomists) can be seen in the digital economy – “work processes have shifted from the factory to society, thereby setting in motion a truly complex machine.” this shift was made possible materially and ideologically by the internet (and i would argue, even more by web 2.0):

The expansion of the Internet has given ideological and material support to contemporary trends toward increased flexibility of the workforce, continuous reskilling, freelance work, and the diffusion of practices such as “supplementing” (bringing supplementary work home from the conventional office).

but the worst part, for me at least, is that web 2.0 culture and tools turn leisure into work. the entire web becomes a professional space. there are no boundaries between work and leisure when everyone you work with is using the same services as you. everything you do online becomes peformative. adding photos to flickr, editing your facebook profile, bookmarking something on delicious, updating your blog. all of these things are part of your digital resume. and if you aren’t participating, you’re a nobody.

there’s a glamorization of all this work as leisure too. critiquing don tapscott’s “digital economy,” terranonva offers some insight into why this might be the case:

For Tapscott, therefore, the digital economy magically resolves the contradictions of industrial societies, such as class struggle: while in the industrial economy the “worker tried to achieve fulfillment through leisure [and]… was alienated from the means of production which were owned and controlled by someone else,” in the digital economy the worker achieves fulfillment through work and finds in her brain her own, unalienated means of production.

knowingly or not, i think we’re increasingly finding (or being told to find) fulfillment through work, so we work all the time. if we believe that work is fulfilling, then who needs leisure? this shift in thinking isn’t new, but its being accelerated and magnified by web 2.0 culture and tools which provide both the ideology and the material necessary for work as life. alienated or not, i don’t think this was what marx really had in mind.

this is why i love being back at school here in perth. the web has become a leisure activity again. i don’t feel like i need to spend all my time managing my digital identity. i don’t get 5000 emails a day or have work conversations on msn in the middle of the night. my leisure time is my own. i have the space and the time to think and digest and live.

but, as i was telling all this to luke, i looked at upcoming and saw that perth’s first barcamp is happening in june. and my heart sank. my little refuge will soon no longer be. but im going, of course. i can only hope that we can do web 2.0 hipsterdom here with a good healthy dose of perth culture.

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