First Monday

Preface: Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0 by Michael Zimmer

Web 2.0 represents a blurring of the boundaries between Web users and producers, consumption and participation, authority and amateurism, play and work, data and the network, reality and virtuality. The rhetoric surrounding Web 2.0 infrastructures presents certain cultural claims about media, identity, and technology. It suggests that everyone can and should use new Internet technologies to organize and share information, to interact within communities, and to express oneself. It promises to empower creativity, to democratize media production, and to celebrate the individual while also relishing the power of collaboration and social networks.

But Web 2.0 also embodies a set of unintended consequences, including the increased flow of personal information across networks, the diffusion of one’s identity across fractured spaces, the emergence of powerful tools for peer surveillance, the exploitation of free labor for commercial gain, and the fear of increased corporatization of online social and collaborative spaces and outputs.

In Technopoly, Neil Postman warned that we tend to be “surrounded by the wondrous effects of machines and are encouraged to ignore the ideas embedded in them. Which means we become blind to the ideological meaning of our technologies” [1]. As the power and ubiquity of Web 2.0 rises, it becomes increasingly difficult for users to recognize its externalities, and easier to take the design of such tools simply “at interface value” [2]. Heeding Postman and Turkle’s warnings, this collection of articles will work to remove the blinders of the unintended consequences of Web 2.0’s blurring of boundaries and critically explore the social, political, and ethical dimensions of Web 2.0.

We start with “Market Ideology and the Myths of Web 2.0,” a provocative probe by Trebor Scholz arguing that Web 2.0 represents not a socio–technological advance in the World Wide Web, but rather a powerful “framing device of professional elites that define what enters the public discourse about the impact of the Web on society.” Scholz deflates the claims of revolutionary technical innovation and social empowerment held dear by many Web 2.0 evangelists, revealing instead that the technologies and communities underlying Web 2.0 have existed, in one form or another, long before Tim O’Reilly first uttered the phrase. By embracing Web 2.0, Scholz concludes, we are acquiescing to a market ideology of crowdsourcing, the exploitation of immaterial free labor, and the “harvesting of the fruits of networked social production.”

Matthew Allen agrees with Scholz’s general classification of Web 2.0, also seeing it more as a “conceptual frame by which to promote and make sense of the Web as Internet–delivered data service” rather than an arrangement of particular online technologies and communities. Allen’s contribution, “Web 2.0: An Argument Against Convergence,” outlines four key components that makeup the conceptual frame of Web 2.0 – technology, economic, users and philosophy – and argues (perhaps providing some relief to Scholz’s concerns) that the unique relationship between the four elements of Web 2.0 provides resistance to attempts at convergence and domination of the Internet by media and telecommunications providers.

Kylie Jarrett focuses on a particular aspect of Web 2.0 in her critical essay “Interactivity is Evil! A critical investigation of Web 2.0.” Disputing the claim that Web 2.0 provides novel opportunities for the articulation of individual and collective social power by enhancing participation in media production and cultural expression, Jarrett argues that the interactivity celebrated in Web 2.0 is disciplinary in nature, offering merely a “contingent freedom” that is, echoing Scholz, “organised by the dictates of a neoliberal socio–political hegemony.” Rather than truly considering it “evil,” however, Jarrett relies on her hyperbolic title to draw attention to the need to “continually interrogate the fabric of digital media.”

Such an interrogation of Web 2.0 similarly motivates Søren Mørk Petersen’s essay, “Loser Generated Content: From Participation to Exploitation.” While recognizing how Web 2.0 infrastructures might foster democracy, participation, creativity, and joy, Petersen reveals how they also enable the exploitation of user–generated content by major corporations. Whether in the form of a distributed architecture of participation (such as blogging), or platforms specifically designed for user–generated content (such as YouTube or Flickr), Web 2.0 represents, according to Petersen, an “architecture of exploitation that capitalism can benefit from.”

A key component of the Web 2.0 that Petersen describes is the free flow of data from site to site, from user to user. Much of the free flow of data among Web 2.0 sites and services contain personal information, which, when captured by Web search engines, poses a threat to informational privacy online. This is the central concern outlined in Michael Zimmer’s contribution, “The Externalities of Search 2.0: The Emerging Privacy Threats when the Drive for the Perfect Search Engine meets Web 2.0.” Zimmer argues that the efforts by Web search engines to build profiles, predict intentions, and deliver personalized products and services by capturing the personal data flows inherent in Web 2.0 creates a Faustian bargain, where the claimed benefits are countered by the “emergence of a robust infrastructure of dataveillance that can quickly be internalized and become the basis of disciplinary social control.”

The role of Web 2.0 in fostering increased forms of surveillance is further explored by Anders Albrechtslund’s article, “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” Complementing Zimmer’s analysis of how Web service providers engage in surveillance of Web 2.0 users, Albrechtslund focuses on users surveilling one another. Contrasting Zimmer’s concern with the privacy and disciplinary threats of Web 2.0-based surveillance, Albrechtslund sees participatory surveillance as empowering, subjectivity building and playful. In sum, he argues that the participatory surveillance inherent in Web 2.0 provides us an opportunity to rethink our traditional notions of hierarchical and threatening forms of surveillance.

This special issue concludes with an epilogue from David Silver, who synthesizes these critical perspectives on Web 2.0 around three themes: history, hype, and hope. Silver remarks that “in our age of everything new and everything now we could use a little history” and that to best understand the implications of Web 2.0, we must explore “its historical contexts, and its revolutionary potential.” Further, Silver warns of acquiescing to the “corporate hype” surrounding Web 2.0, reminding us that when corporations say “community” they mean “commerce,” and when they say “aggregation” they mean “advertising.” Perhaps, Silver argues, we’re witnessing the emergence of California Ideology 2.0. Finally, Silver does leave room for hope, recognizing that we are witnessing the birth of a new “writeable generation, a generation of young people who think of media as something they read and something they write – often simultaneously.”

From Scholz to Silver, the goal of this special issue on Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0 is to remove the blinders that Neil Postman warns us of, and in reading the essays that follow, we hope to help and expose, explore and explain the ideological meanings and the social, political, and ethical implications of Web 2.0. End of article


About the author

Michael Zimmer, PhD, is the Microsoft Resident Fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. He received his PhD in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University under the guidance of Profs. Helen Nissenbaum, Alex Galloway, and Siva Vaidhyanathan. He frequently writes about the social, political, and ethical dimensions of information and communication technologies at



1. Postman, 1992, p. 94.

2. Turkle, 1995, p. 103.



Neil Postman, 1992. Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Knopf.

Sherry Turkle, 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.


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Preface: Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0
by Michael Zimmer
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 - 3 March 2008