Once upon a time, publishing webpages was solely the domain of a relatively select few. Those who had the ability to code in HTML, who knew how to use FTP to upload files and who had access to space on a webserver connected to the Internet. A decade ago, GeoCities was one of the first sites to offer free webspace for the general public to post their own pages. Many, many bad pages were produced, mainly because you still needed technical skills and ultimately, it was a sea of static pages providing one-way communication. And just because you had technical skills, it didn’t mean you also had writing and layout skills.
Skip forward to late-2004 when the term Web 2.0 was first used. A new wave of dynamic and totally interactive websites was introduced and the previous travellers of the information superhighway could all suddenly become consultants to and constructors of it. Wikipedia introduced the concept of a free on-line encyclopedia with hundreds of thousands of contributors and reviewers. MySpace offers social networking with an interactive, user-submitted network of friends, personal profiles, blogs, photos, music, videos and groups. Sites like del.icio.us are a social bookmarking phenomenon and have the power to direct large numbers of visitors to websites through a quick and simple recommendation system. Sites and services like these are increasing the generation of content on the web exponentially, simply by giving everyone the ability to easily contribute.
Social networking sites like MySpace and Bebo are aimed directly at younger people and often at children. While it’s great that children can express themselves and have a voice in front of a wide audience, it’s the more mature concepts of privacy, decency and respect that are often lacking in their posts. Further, it’s the legal concepts of copyright infringement, defamation and incitement that are easy to forget in the world of Web 2.0. Why is it possible to so easily and publicly identify, defame and slander a man on a site like Don’t Date Him Girl! without any evidence to back it up? Why can students edit Wikipedia and Bebo entries about their school to include disparaging comments about teachers and other students?
The most common way that schools around the world are managing this problem is by filtering (blocking) access to many Web 2.0 sites at school. OK, that keeps the problem out of the school (assuming the children haven’t worked out how to circumvent the filters), but it does nothing to stop the problem at home. Laws are also ill-equipped to manage the problems of Web 2.0. What if the poster is a minor? What if the service is hosted in another country? What lesson will be learnt if the only repercussions are that the offending post will be removed – sometime after it has been found and reported?
So what’s needed? I think governments, schools and parents need to be more open-minded about the social-networking phenomenon for a start. We need to stop managing the posts and start managing the people who post. We need to update the age-old difference between right and wrong to mould it into a Web 2.0 environment. It’s not about exclusion, it’s about teaching respect and consideration and responsible self-publishing. It’s about teaching people to think critically in all aspects of life and it all needs to be backed up with appropriate, enforceable guidelines and laws.
Finally, yes, I accept the irony of writing about the Problems of Web 2.0 by using a Web 2.0 application. And there’s always the problem of what people might add to the comments section!