Making Web 2.0 Work: Embracing Complexity

We’ve come a long way. Web 1.0, no small miracle itself, was largely about getting access to, and mobilizing, information on a scale unprecedented in history. Web 2.0 has been about what Tim O’Reilly calls creating “an architecture of participation”, changing the role of ‘user’ from searcher and reader to sharer and collaborator. The term ‘social networking’ describes the core of this, but what’s going on (today) at its edges — peer production, open source, activism — goes well beyond just connecting, towards doing things together, things that make a difference.The Web is a complex phenomenon: It has more variables affecting its evolution than anyone could ever hope to identify or analyze, and its properties are emergent. The result is therefore, like nature and other complex phenomena, not always pretty and rarely efficient, but resilient, innovative and effective. We still long to, and try to, reduce it to a ‘manageable’ merely complicated phenomenon: We develop applications that are centralized or top down and require everyone to learn one way of doing things and behave in a common way (most of the failed first-generation social networking tools suffer from this impossible, in complex systems, requirement). We try to map it, manage it, analyze it, complicate it. Corporatists want, and try, to control it.So trying to make it work is a paradox: We want to improve it, make it more useful, but we know we cannot manage it. We have to adapt ourselves to it, and be content to do things at its edges, where everything of value on the Web is created and where everything is happening. Think of it as a generous open market with several billion stalls, where all the sellers are also buyers, splitting their time among offering, seeking, understanding others’ offerings, and co-developing new offerings with others, and where so much is just given away. By allowing us to see, and filter, and organize in our own minds, those billions of offerings, the web has made this market, which would otherwise be chaotic and unfathomable, merely complex — not manageable, but workable.In order to be truly workable, to be not only a place for fascinating discovery but a place for changing the world, the Web needs to evolve nine capacities that it currently promises but does not really deliver:

  1. The capacity to focus attention on what’s important. As Bill Maher said, “The purpose of the media is to make what’s important interesting.” Take a look at what’s attracting the most attention online and I think you’ll admit it’s what’s entertaining, not what’s important. What used to be ‘information overload’ is now a dangerous distraction, an immense waste of time we cannot afford. Who’s to say what’s important? All of us, collectively, equally, without regard to our wealth, our title, or our advertising budget.
  2. The capacity to suggest practical action. We are all information junkies, but too often what we learn is not immediately actionable, or not actionable at all. The way to add value to information is to explain (a) what it means, and (b) what we can and should do about it now. If it will only be actionable later, then we need to be able to capture a pointer to it so we can and do find it then, without having to rely on memory.
  3. The capacity to enable self-managed networks, exchanges and peer production. We need to be able to find and organize people to do things we can’t do ourselves, and create exchanges of expertise and specialized goods that strengthen local economies (and make them more self-sufficient) and facilitate trade and peer production with those outside the local community free from high-markup, low-value-added oligopolistic middlemen. We are all potentially simultaneously producers and consumers, and Web-based ‘markets’ are evolving to be totally unlike the hierarchical ‘producer-consumer’ markets that view us, as Jerry Michalski puts it, as “gullets to consume products and crap cash”. We need Web-based networks, exchanges and peer production partnerships that allow us, in our capacities as producers and consumers, to co-develop ideas and offerings that meet our collective needs. The current Web infrastructure, with unlimited download (consumption) capacity but constrained upload (production) capacity, just won’t do. And most first-generation social networking tools are too centralized, complicated and limiting — we need to evolve our own, self-managed, intuitive and peer-to-peer.
  4. The capacity to enable self-directed education. We learn best by doing, not by being told. We all learn differently at different paces, and we all want and need to learn different things. You want to change the world? Move entire curricula onto the Web. Then help develop the $99 solar or crank-powered satellite-wifi-enabled computer, add the $99 to the price of every more extravagant computer sold, and give the $99 computers away to those in struggling nations and to our own poor. Airdrop them instead of bombs and watch poverty and terrorism fade away.
  5. The capacity to reveal deliberately-hidden truths. Most actionable information is local, and much of this is information that some would prefer you not know, like local frauds, bribes, intimidation and other corruption, polluters, cases of abuse of family members and animals, rigged tenders, rezoning applications and approvals etc. This is information that local indymedia would provide if they had the resources. With the web, we can become the local indymedia, and organize and offer our unlimited resources to surface truths we can do something about right in our own communities. We might even be able to leverage this power to ‘out’ suppressed truths at higher levels of political and corporate governance.
  6. The capacity to drive and disseminate innovations. Corporatists are doing everything they can to buy and lock up every conceivable idea and innovation. The Web can set ideas and innovations free. Ideas are still cheap, but innovations are all about how to implement an idea successfully — minimizing the risk of failure and giving investors in the implementation a reasonable return for their time, energy and money. In implementation, the devil is in the details. ‘Best practices’ can’t capture enough of those details to be useful, and the ‘case studies’ you learn in university are full of self-serving distortions and dangerous oversimplifications. In order for the Web to drive and disseminate innovations, we all need to learn and teach and practice effective innovation processes, and volunteer to give away the details of implementations, including the war stories and embarrassing failures. Since “we know more than we can say and can say more than we can write down” (Dave Snowden), that knowledge must be, in part, conveyed substantially in stories, conversations and through direct observation. Web 2.0 needs to evolve to facilitate this.
  7. The capacity to embrace complexity. Since Web 2.0 is itself complex, this may seem a bit recursive, so bear with me. Changing the world is about addressing, coping with, problems. The problem-solving methods used in most large organizations, taught in most universities, and proffered by most experts and consultants are designed for complicated problems, those that, with enough information, energy and expenditure can be run to the ground and ‘solved’. Complex problems are ‘wicked‘, and complicated problem-solving techniques are largely ineffectual in dealing with them. That’s why these problems are so intractable, and why every couple of years there’s another set of ‘big ideas’ and consultants trying, once again, and invariably with little success, to ‘solve’ them. There are approaches, such as Open Space, that are designed to address complex problems. Web 2.0 needs to accommodate them.
  8. The capacity to provide trust, equitable access and participation in all its offerings. The presence of trust on the Web is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness — its strength because without trust there is no credibility and hence no value, and its weakness because when that trust is violated — when something online is found to be untrue or wildly exaggerated — the damage to the entire Web is huge. Spam and Phishing, exemplars of untruth, are therefore huge threats to the Web, and the opportunities for even worse abuses of trust have barely been tapped. Just as serious as the threats to credibility are the corporatist threats to create a two-tier Internet, widening the access asymmetries between rich and poor and between powerful producers and the rest of us to a chasm. If the Internet is an Eden of information and opportunity, the trust saboteurs like Spammers and Phishers are its toxic chemicals and the two-tier Internet its exclusionary barbed-wire fences. And while tools like blogs and wikis do allow universal participation in Web 2.0, and while the Long Tail epitomizes its depth and resiliency, that Long Tail is also a threat: Late joiners to Web 2.0 are finding it harder and harder to be heard, to find an audience, to be treated as equals in this bold and democratic experiment. We pioneers had it easy — the best ‘spaces’ were there for the taking. We need to welcome, help, and make room for the new immigrants to cyberspace.
  9. The capacity to be simple and intuitive to use. This doesn’t mean misrepresenting what’s complex as simple. We need to recognize the complexity as we design and evolve applications and networks, but pack that complexity under the hood so that people (especially the 80% of the world that is still on the other side of the digital divide) don’t need to understand that complexity to be able to realize Web 2.0’s benefits.

Is there a point in outlining these needed capacities, when I’ve already admitted that the Web is unmanageable, that no one is “in charge”? When so many users of the Web are interested in it only as a source of cheap porn, a diversion for escapist games and celebrity trivia, a market for their fraud and crap, and a vent for their helpless rage, how can we ‘trust’ the crowd to evolve it into anything other than an ocean of dreck, another abused and abandoned victim of The Tragedy of the Commons?

Web 2.0 will be what it will be. It is, like nature and other complex systems, remarkably resilient. If we can keep the corporatists from turning it into a self-serving commercial enterprise, and keep the screens glowing when cheap oil runs out, there is no reason why it can’t change the world, perhaps even save it. A lot of people realize the importance of developing the nine capacities above, and are guiding their on-line energies to helping those capacities to emerge and evolve. Amazing what a few billion people can do when theywork together.

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4 Responses to Making Web 2.0 Work: Embracing Complexity

  1. Matthew J. says:

    “and keep the screens glowing when cheap oil runs out”. Hmm.. More vulnerable than keeping the screens glowing is keeping a supply of screens to glow. Computer electronics are some of the most complicated technologies industrial civilization has produced (as well as being my favorite). Although I would really really love to see people still on a 2.0 web 50 years from now, I am unsure there will be computers still being built.

  2. Zef says:

    I agree with you – and I’m in the process of designing a Web 2.0 style application with the following vision:”EcoElves will be a new type of online system which allows users to partake in building an

  3. dave davison says:

    Dave – another powerful use of a graphic lead-in with David Snowden’s Four Ontologies. I saw it used by Verna Allee during presentation at MeshForum and also truly enjoyed meeting and working with Mike Herman in the Open Space ‘Make your Net Work” session that followed. Mike suggested restarting the collaboration with Chris Corrigan Any thoughts?

  4. dave davison says:

    And in addition here’s your quote”Late joiners to Web 2.0 are finding it harder and harder to be heard, to find an audience, to be treated as equals in this bold and democratic experiment. We pioneers had it easy — the best ‘spaces’ were there for the taking. We need to welcome, help, and make room for the new immigrants to cyberspace. In return for helping you in any way that I can given my resources – I need help in understanding the process now of entering the blogosphere with Thoughts Illustrated

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