back to article The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0

Imagine a world in which parents read to their children in the evening, not because it was a pleasurable and meaningful activity, but as an investment in the child's future earning potential. Or consider a close-knit neighbourhood in which people clubbed together on social events not so as to enjoy a sense of community, but so …


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  1. Del Merritt

    nod to Isaac Asimov

    Consider Asimov's Foundation trilogy. He proposes a social calculus that is sufficiently powerful to accurately presage events for several millennia.

    Yeah, it's all fiction, but this article reminded me of that. Been over thirty years since I last read it; time to give it a fresh go, I think.

  2. Chris Croughton

    Not original

    It isn't an original idea, that all action is ultimately 'selfish'. Writers such as Ayn Rand and Richard Dawson put forward that idea decades ago. However, the summary of the philosophy has important parts missing:

    "All human action can be seen as ultimately derived from the maximisation of satisfaction and the minimisation of discomfort, as perceived by the individual at the time".

    Note that this does not rule out 'altruism', because 'altruistic' behaviour can be seen in terms of non-material rewards an avoidance of discomfort. A common reply to a question of why a person did something 'altruistic' for instance is "It makes me feel good". Another is "I would feel guilty if I didn't do it." Religious people often express it as an expected reward or punishment in the afterlife.

    The critical thing to evaluating people's behaviour using an 'economic' model, however, is finding out what 'weight' the individuals place on each action, and that is where such models break down because rarely does even the individual concerned know exactly what they are evaluating. The 'weights' can also change from moment to moment, and often do not reflect reality. People can and often do go for an immediate pleasure over a long-term good, where at another time they may think more rationally about the long-term effects and forego the immediate satisfaction. And of course something I find satisfying or painful may have the opposite reaction for someone else.

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  4. A. Lewis

    I'm not sure I agree

    Recommendation systems as used by amazon are new, so there is nothing for them to usurp. Before amazon was able to suggest something I might like, I discovered new music/books/films by pointers from friends, this still happens now and isn't likely to be replaced by any online service.

  5. Mark W


    "The implications of this are stark. All altruistic, moral, cultural or emotional behaviour becomes reconceived as the outcome of individual calculation. It is no longer just businessmen and traders whose behaviour can be understood in terms of rational self-interest, but that of politicians, parents and neighbours."

    You mean that politicians might only lobby for things in their own self-interest rather than for the good of their constituents? *tremulous gasp*

    Lucky that was pointed out as I might have continued with my altruistic world view...

  6. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Free Market Meritocracies

    "For the rest of us, what this means is that community is now available to manipulate, choose and consume." ....

    A facility available to all who would nurture IT rather than the privilege abused by the few who would think to buy it or inherit it? Yeah sounds about right. It is nice to have a bigger choice in what to accept though, rather than having no say at all.

    Puts a few noses out of joint, I imagine..... but that's Progress ..Binary Style.

  7. Simon Greenwood

    Recommendations speed a career? Discuss.

    The function of the web (2.0 and otherwise) in the rapid development of new music and other forms of entertainment hadn't really occurred to me although it's patently obvious from the people flooding back into Manchester from the Arctic Monkeys' gig at Old Trafford on Sunday night. They are a case in point: less than two years from first single to headlining a two day festival via a Saturday night headliner at Glastonbury, but I don't think it can all be put down to the Internet. Twenty years ago the Monkeys would have probably just about graduated from the John Peel show to the early evening show on Radio 1. The cool kids at school would be into them but the breakthrough single might not have happened yet. They, like many of the other bands in the top 20 this week would be in that position, primarily due to the lack of exposure available.

    Today, there's not just the web, but a surfeit of places for exposure: there's a festival every weekend in the summer and every festival is a televised or radio broadcast event. The phone companies all have their shows, and then the big ISPs have their events too. There are loads of 24 hour music TV stations on digital TV, plus the assorted community stations that fill space with music videos, and they all need content. Then there are the new radio stations, not least 6Music (a very good station, but I still blame them for making Keane big) and the changing demographic that has made us, the thirtysomethings with the money, bigger consumers of music than any adult generation before us. The providers have to feed that need, so they are compelled to follow the trends and throw money and bands at it in the hope that they stick. The Kaiser Chiefs lead to an invasion of West Yorkshire by labels in search of their own local band to sign in a way that hadn't been seen since punk. When the Arctic Monkeys made it, the cry will have gone up 'to Sheffield!' or at least 'find me our Arctic Monkeys!' and another cycle of bands get added to rosters, playlists, festivals and Myspace.

    In essence, it's not just the web that motivates this rapid turnover, but the increased needs of the entertainment industry in general.

  8. b shubin

    Process vs. goal

    several studies have documented that many human decisions (maybe even a majority) are out of sequence: if it is assumed that [a] is the process of rationalization or consideration, [b] is the derived justification or context, and [c] is the point of decision, then the common sequence appears to be [c, a, b] or [c, b, a], and not the expected [a, b, c] or [b, c].

    this tendency undermines the argument that rational self-interest drives all human decisions. if such calculation prevailed in all (or even most) decisions, the world would be a more rational, unsentimental, predictable place. it is certainly true that, once you grab someone by their self-interest, you can easily guide them in a direction of your choosing; the same can be said of prejudice and sentiment. the reality is that, as a species, humanity is "brutal, immoral, unreasonable and self-centered" (quoted from "America, The Book" by The Daily Show staff). many of us may be rational individuals, but as a group, we are often an angry, violent, unpredictable mob.

    the situation is further complicated by two major tendencies in people: goal-oriented vs. process-oriented. this is well demonstrated by a "bus" metaphor: some people prefer a charter bus that takes the fastest available route, so they arrive at the destination faster, and they aren't too concerned with how nice the trip is; others want to ride the double-decker with a tour guide, through a scenic part of town, since they are in no particular hurry and want to enjoy the experience. generally, individuals tend to have one of these tendencies as a dominant.

    the final equation is not as simple as Web 2.0 and Becker postulate. the methods put forward are useful within certain contexts, much like Newtonian physics and the theory of relativity. perhaps Asimov's advanced social calculus will emerge in due time, but what we have here now is certainly not the final word, nor is it adequate to modeling anything more than some fairly narrowly defined situations.

  9. Mike Moyle

    Score: Web 2, Kismet 0

    The main problem that I see from the Web 2.Overhype is that it seems to be based on a compulsive urge to take randomness, luck, kismet, and all of those other "messy" aspects out of life. (I think that this urge to excise the messy aspects from life is the reason that the Web 2.0 people tout "mashups" as art, rather than learning to paint or sculpt, say - it doesn't require learning how to peacefully co-exist with a medium that has its own characteristics and needs to be manipulated within those constraints in order to work. But that's a rant for another time.)

    Take Amazon, for example: If I'm looking for a book on, say, Arthurian literature, I type inm my search terms and up comes a list of books on the subject. I click on one and I get info about that book and other books that I might also be intersted in (tm).

    Fair enough... it's efficient, give it that.

    Now, let's go to my public library and make the same search: I go to the terminals (since they got rid of the wonderful sensual experience of diving into those wood-and-wax-smelling oak drawers full of file cards... but that's ANOTHER rant for another time!)... so I go to the terminals and pull up a list of books that might be what I want. I take my list of titles and Dewey decimal numbers and head into the stacks. I find those books and, flipping through them, I find the ones that actually are useful to me. But in the meantime, while walking down the aisle to find those books, I've found two books of British archaeology and one on the history of post-Roman Britain and France that puts the Arthurian legends into historical context. ...And Suetonius' "The Twelve Caesars", and Pellegrino's book on Biblical archaeology, which are unrelated to what I originally went in for, but are fascinating reads in their own right, and which I never would have picked up on if I hadn't gone down that aisle, scanning the shelves for the stuff that I originally went in for.

    Efficient...? Hell, no - but ultimately more satisfying to me.

    There are stores that I go into when I'm looking for a specific item, and there are stores that I go into when I'm looking to see what will present itself to me that I never knew I needed and can't live without (thank you, Archie McPhee, for that phrase!).

    Until Web 2.0 can provide me that level of useful inefficiency it will not fully meet my hunting/gathering needs.

  10. Daniel Ballado-Torres


    "But in the meantime, while walking down the aisle to find those books, I've found two books of British archaeology and one on the history of post-Roman Britain and France that puts the Arthurian legends into historical context."

    Yes, there are things in the Internet that, while "efficient", have taken out some of the extras that give the experience (in this case, the library) something more satisfying for me. I usually like to check the book contents before I buy, Amazon will not let me do that (well, it does for 10 pages or so with some books).

    However, some of the interesting stuff I remember of web imitating real life seems to have gone forever. Anyone remember how Geocities started? Its appeal for me wasn't the free website (I already had one with my ISP, and another one from High School) but the "Neighborhood" concept it had. You know, like having "neighbors" in your site. Say, I was Area51/2304, and I could check all users in the 2300 "block" of my area. The concept gave a feeling of community, and Geocities actually played a while with this overall concept, which I have not seen in *any* "social network" system.

    Then came Yahoo!, they bought the service, and shat all over the thing. Pages became<username> and soon enough, the whole "community" thing ceased to exist. Then again, this is the same Yahoo! that renamed "Konfabulator" to the dull "Yahoo! Widgets".

    I doubt Web 2.0 has taken in mind some of this stuff, actually I think Web 2.0 actually has more to do on javascript kiddies jacking off on how great their AJAX is than a real paradigm shift.

  11. J


    "Bands now shoot to fame with their first record, then disappear soon after."

    NOW there are one-hit-wonder bands? Where have you been the past, er... 50 years to say the least?

  12. Ed Deckard

    Bad examples.

    For me, Amazon's recommendation system is just another source of potential reading material, and not a very important one at that. I get much more out of other sources, such as reviews, references, friends' recommendations and plain old bookstore browsing. Even if it -could- replace those, it won't, because it sucks. Based on a few one-off purchases their system has built up a completely wrong image of what my interests are. I suppose one can waste some time trying to fix that, but who would bother?

    Others have already pointed out the flawed thinking in blaming Web 2.0 for the flash-in-the-pan careers of musicians.

    I'm a bit cynical about the whole Web 2.0 concept because it's dumb and ineffective, not because it's too effective, as the author imagines it is. Web 2.0 isn't going to "break" anything that hasn't been long broken by TV, video games and Web 1.0.

  13. Tim Butterworth

    Economics vs physics vs evolutionary psychology

    The main uses of the University intranet when I was a student back in the early 90s were email, message boards, porn (obviously), MUDs, sharing academic ideas and multi-user tank fighting games. With the exception of the porn, all of these uses were 'many to many' interactions - although the population was much smaller than it is now. In fact, the intranet was just a loose, simplified model of normal student life. Little has changed; Web 2.0 is largely the same as various aspects of real-world life, only the population pool is bigger and it is much easier to search through to find people like you. Web 2.0 is basically a social search engine.

    So, what about the economics? Game theory has played a major part in the social sciences for a few decades now (as economists know full well!), but I suppose most readers of The Register aren't familiar with sociology. Really, Becker's motivation is not in introducing new ideas per se - he is actually fighting a turf war with the physicists and the geneticists over the quickly sciencifying (is that a real word?) field of sociology.

    Read a selection of pop-sociology books and you will quickly spot three camps. The Economists are now telling us that the mathematics used to explain human interactions aren't mathematical theories, they're economic theories. TIn the second camp, the physicists will show how fluid dynamics can be used to model road traffic and how phase transitions may model social change, and will explain that if economists did proper empirical testing, then they would see that human behaviour doesn't obey current economic models anyway.

    The third camp, the current new kids on the block, are the Evolutionary Psychologists> They will tell you that it is an over-simplification to treat humans as the simple 'atomic' interacting units. Both the economists and the physicists fail to grasp that the real 'rational' agents are not humans, but are in fact our genes, acting out through our predisposed behaviour patterns. Humans don't automatically behave selfishly - our genes do (and by this I mean that genes are succesfull if they aid the spread of themselves - selfish in this sense is not the same as selfish in an everyday sense. Read 'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins for a better explanation!). Altruism is no mystery once we realise that an act of altruism doesn't have to directly benefit the individual in question for there to be a beneficial outcome of owning the genes that lead to occasional acts of altruism. As long as the gene that makes us altruistic also halps make us successful in some other way, it will spread. Yes, human behaviour follows mathematically determined efficiency - but that is because evolution follows mathematical rules.

    Of course, non of these disciplines allow true free will as many a layperson would like to imagine they are in possesion of. This is not a big disaster though - the importance of self-determination is a recent phenomenon, largely created by the political philosophers of the last couple of hundred years and is mostly focused on the politically and socially liberal consumer society of the present day. For thousands of years many humans believed that they were a part of a Divine plan, that their sins were the result of Satan's influence and that their lives were ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond their individual control. Even now, millions think that their futures are predestined, and so use horoscopes and Tarot cards to predict what is going to happen in the future. Others happily believe that their behaviour is profoundly influenced by 'energy fields' that obey laws similar to those found in physics.

    Having complete control over one's behaviour is not a traditional human belief. Accepting that humans do not have the ability to make geniunely free concious choices (call it Divine plan or mathematical equation, the two are equivalent in this context) is an old trick - and perhaps one we would be better off re-learning. It would certainly help us understand how the big companies, politicians and religions manipulate our behaviour for their own benefit!

  14. Steve Roper

    @Simon Greenwood

    You raised some very valid points there, and they made me consider this as an addendum:

    Since there are now many more events, festivals and avenues of publication because of the internet, and the demand for media content has thus increased exponentially as a result, the quantity of content works now being produced to fill this increased market would reduce the overall quality of any given one of those works. This is because truly great works that stand the test of time to become "classics" like Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings etc. don't appear that often. Perhaps one in several thousand works will elevate to this level. Further, simply because more works are produced doesn't mean more "great" works will be produced - inspiration isn't statistical, and human nature dictates that "great" works only occur rarely - if they're common, what makes them "great"? Greatness is proportional to the amount of time since any other great work has appeared multiplied by its overall popularity, just as gold would be worthless if it was as common as sandstone. Thus it is more likely that the ratio of short-lived works to great works will actually increase in relation to the production rate.

    As a result, the increased efficiency of Web 2.0 and its recommendation and search tools becomes offset by the higher volume of commonplace content masking the presence of outstanding content. The speed with which one can find a "gem" is thus countered by the extra time you spend looking through all the extra commonplace content.

    A quick visit to YouTube will illustrate this principle perfectly. Even if you only look at the "recommended" videos, few if any of them will really stand out in the eyes of the average viewer.

  15. Alan Donaly

    What is web 2.0 used for

    even this form sucks for some reason it launched without me wanting it to or hitting enter or anything. I just don't get web 2.0 I don't use it in my websites because I don't ever notice a crying need for it it's just another unreliable client side hack I have seen too many I am tired of them.

  16. Tim

    An aside

    This particular comment thread (itself a very 'web 2.0' feature) is in serious danger of degenerating into rational, well-argued debate.

  17. Simon Greenwood

    @Steve Roper

    Or as The Kaiser Chiefs said 'Everything is Average Nowadays' ;)

  18. Jason Scrutton

    More efficient twaddle?

    Having had a fair amount of experience of umpteen different types of hype over the years, the remarkable web 2.0 phenomonon simply reminds me of the advent of desktop publishing and presentation software...

    Whereby they can help someone to communicate their message more effectively, or produce more consistent, unintelligible rubbish in a shorter space of time.

    Web 2.0 is not much more than a moniker for a bunch of technologies and techniques that COULD serve up some very interesting concepts - but only as long as the underlying idea makes some sense in the first place; and generates more cash than it costs to setup and run.

    At the end of the day, tools are just tools...

  19. Julian

    Its a new communication channel

    People will go with the path of least resistance in general.

    Quality vs quantity

    Social computing technologies do make it much easier to do certain things, and it's very tempting to vy for quantity over quality, particularly in the under 25s. The fact is, in many social circles today, having 1200 friends on facebook makes you look like a winner; having 3 makes you look like a loser. Even if you and those 3 will live like brothers and sisters for the rest of your life. In this respect, social network services could seem a little like antisocial network services, as the amount of 'IRL' (in real life) or F2F (face to face) time is reduced. The mobile phone did this to some extent; it's unsuprising to see it go further on a richer communication medium.

    Recent research has identified that SNSs have a spectrum of impacts; some miss the quality aspect after overdosing on quantity; others find it augments their lives.

    Here's an idea -- I think there's an opportunity to represent the value of the connections -- the amount of time spent with them and the time you've had the connection. But how do you account for the first without further encouraging more online activity.

  20. Steve Roper

    Quality vs quantity

    @ Julian: I agree with your implied preference for quality over quantity. For my part, I'd a thousand times rather have just 3 friends I can rely on when I need them, than 1200 acquaintances who'll scatter like cockroaches when the going gets rough. A small contact list isn't the mark of a loser; it's the mark of someone who shows good judgment in choosing their friends, whether online or IRL. Such a person is more likely to be someone whose friendship is worth cultivating, in preference to someone interested only in the wank factor of being a Web 2.0 social butterfly.

    @ Simon Greenwood: I love it when I see someone reduce one of my wordy missives to such a simple, clear sentence. Well put! :)

  21. Tim Tylor

    Excuses, excuses

    "For thousands of years many humans believed that they were a part of a Divine plan... their lives were ultimately at the mercy of forces beyond their individual control. Even now, millions think that their futures are predestined..." In other words, Archie had us bang to rights:

    he is the great alibi ike of

    the cosmos when he raises hell

    just because he feels like

    raising hell

    he wants somebody to blame it on

    A planet full of beings who seriously believe they aren't responsible for their own actions is a planet that needs warning beacons round it.

  22. Andrew Orlowski (Written by Reg staff)

    Commissioning Editor replies -

    Simon -

    >> In essence, it's not just the web that motivates this rapid turnover, but the increased needs of the entertainment industry in general. <<

    The entertainment industry really wants the exact opposite: reliable, well-established names who can crank out a platinum seller at regular intervals. It wants the Elton Johns and Cliff Richards. It doesn't even mind if the artist is dead, so long as it has re-packaging rights. In this sense, it's no different to the software companies who want to replace upgrades with subscriptions, and "software as a service". Every business craves revenue predictability.

    Tim Butterworth -

    >> sciencifying (is that a real word?) <<


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