The challenges of Web 2.0

Dieter Hammer, Working Group Human Measure in IT, vrijdag 15 juni 2007

This article is a reflection on the yearly Architecture event organized by Sun Microsystems. This year’s subject was Web 2.0, a challenging and also controversial subject. With respect to its predecessor, Web 2.0 is 3D, interactive and thus more immersive. The evolutionary step of Web 2.0’s interactivity leads to many new opportunities based on active participation for everybody. This leads to a paradigm shift from personal interaction to peer-to-peer interaction, both P2P and B2B. Since networks have loyalty patterns, the emphasis also shifts from trusted media to trusted individuals or companies.

On the social side, Web 2.0 supports a variety of social networks such as interest groups, forums and educational networks. On the business side, it enables new forms of B2B communication, new marketing strategies, new recruitment possibilities and new forms of customer participation. Examples of the latter are product and market evaluation at the start of the product creation process, co-makership with potential customers, fast feedback cycles and enhanced customer service. Popular examples of Web 2.0 are communities like Second Life and Amazon; personal publishing like You Tube and eBlogger; content review & aggregation like Google and PriceRunner; collaborative content creation like WikipediA and tripadvisor; and games like World of Warcraft and Entropia Universe.

The common focus is on the opportunities Web 2.0 provides for the creation of new business, markets and products. Behind the cloud of smoke established by the often unreflected commercial enthusiasm, there are, however, also a number of challenges related to the human condition in general and to the human measure in IT in particular. To investigate this issue, we also need to take a look at the potential problems related to Web 2.0. This has nothing to do with culture or technology pessimism, but only with establishing a more comprehensive view on the phenomenon Web 2.0. At the end of this article, I will argue that in the long term, these challenges are the most important ones.

First of all, there is what I call the virtuality trap. The 3D world of Web 2.0 comprises much more virtuality than the rather static and picture-oriented world of its predecessor. Second life and gaming are the most prominent examples of this development. You are submerged in a world full of artificial creatures that imitate or enact real or imaginary characters. In the best case it’s just fun, but in the worst case, the boundary between the real and the artificial world fades and you get addicted to the ease and freedom of the latter. This can be an excuse to escape from a cumbersome reality with its limited possibilities, its sorrows and the effort required to achieve things.

In the second place, there is the time trap, associated with the virtually unlimited possibilities of Web 2.0. Let me explain this with a simple analogy. We all know the term “daytrip”. Obviously, on a daytrip by car you can travel much further (a circle with a radius of say 300 km) than on a daytrip by foot (a circle with a radius of say 15 km). Car travel implies that all trips can be 20 times faster, making mobility and flexibility major motivators for car use. What we tend to forget is that a circle of 300 km contains on average (300/15)2 = 400 times more attractive places than a circle of 15 km. If you want to visit all of them, you will need 400/(300/15) = 20 times more time, despite the fact that your speed is now (300/15) = 20 times higher. In other words, you get 20 times busier. Although this is a rather trivial calculation, this is what happens each time you start a new endeavour without defining goals beforehand and adhering strictly to them. Think about all the productivity tools provided by IT, ranging from relative simple word processors to complex ERP systems. They all start out with the idea of making existing tasks easier and more efficient, but they also offer many new and tempting features that might also be useful …

Defining relevant goals requires making decisions. Modern IT, Internet, our free economy and globalization have opened a wealth of new possibilities. Think about “e-anything”, the free choice of commodities like communication facilities, energy, clothing, consumer goods, jobs, etc. The related complexity is often too big to be captured by non-specialists, i.e. the average individual. Digging into this complexity takes a lot of time and money, but taking unfortunate decisions can cost even more time and money. If there are many choices and their consequences are hidden or unclear, this easily leads to getting caught in what I call the decision trap.

  • On the efficiency side, the effort to investigate the advantages and disadvantages of the various possibilities is often higher than the benefits of an “optimal” decision. Moreover, there is often no “optimal” decision since we neither know all the parameters nor all the consequences of a particular choice. To make the problem even more difficult, taking no decision often turns out to be the poorest decision. This can lead to considerable discomfort and stress if your time and financial resources are limited or you are afraid of the results of an unfortunate decision.
  • On the ethical side, the question is whether all possibilities are also responsible choices. The issue here is outer freedom versus inner freedom. This comprises not only the classical moral problems of the consequences of our decisions for other people and the environment. Many new possibilities to mislead and cheat others are opened by peer-to-peer networking and the necessity to trust unknown individuals instead of established institutions. Think about the cheating and slander of individuals and companies, hate networks and pressure groups. In a complex environment with so many possibilities and so many hidden issues, people have the tendency to follow the majority or the person with the strongest opinion and this behavior can easily be manipulated. It is just too easy to fake facts and identity. Closely related to this time trap is what I call time crumbling. Having many goals and making many decisions requires time sharing between many activities. The available time needs to be split into many small pieces and context switching becomes a considerable overhead. We can probably all remember certain days when we were extremely busy with all kinds of things and at the end of the day wondering “what was I actually doing the whole day?” Taken to the extreme, the result is chaotic behavior and burn-out.

Of course, the problems mentioned above are not new. They are as old as the evolution of mankind and the evolution of technology. The point, however, is that IT works as an accelerator of all types of developments and activities. Consequently, it makes latent problems visible or even painful. The inherent nature of problems is that they ask for a solution. The related troubles and pain makes us conscious of an imbalance, e.g. between business opportunities and quality of life, between the illusions of virtuality and the richness of real life, between copying other people and making our own judgment, between the fast development of the outer world and our own inner development. The latter is the point I would like to emphasize here. You can see Web 2.0 as a plea to develop our inner self. A plea to view also the less visible aspects of this technology. A plea to develop the appropriate power of judgment and the personal strength to avoid the above-mentioned traps. This requires insight into ourselves, into our strengths and weaknesses, i.e. self-consciousness. What place do I give virtuality in my life? Which of the many possibilities offered by technology do I concentrate on. How do I spend my time to achieve my goals? How much effort do I spend to find the “optimal” choice? How do I deal with ethical dilemmas? How many simultaneous tasks can I handle without getting exhausted?

(Web) technology will develop rapidly and many new products and market opportunities unimaginable at the moment will appear. As always, there will be many success stories, many failures and a lot of noise. Also the pace of this game will increase due to the time trap described above. The richer the fabric of our life becomes, the more important it becomes to see the appeal it makes to our consciousness and inner development, to reduce complexity by making sound choices, i.e. choices that are adapted to our personal situation and our well-being. Choices that help us to maintain our inner balance while facing the ever increasing possibilities offered by technology.

This is also a plea for architects to take responsibility. A good architecture must also take the human aspects into account, i.e. an architectural design must be constructed according to the human measure. This means that the architect is also aware of the above-mentioned aspects, both in designing an architecture, in interacting with his stakeholders and in his own personal development.

Note that this article reflects the personal opinion of the author and is not necessarily the common view of the workgroup. For more information about the group, the goals and relevant publications, see


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