First Monday

History, Hype, and Hope: An Afterward by David Silver






There’s something quite brilliant, from a corporate–consumer–marketing perspective, about the term Web 2.0. Its very name – Web 2.0 – embodies new–and–improvedness: a new version, a new stage, a new paradigm, a new Web, a new way of living. Attached to any old noun, 2.0 makes the noun new: Library 2.0, Scholarship 2.0, Culture 2.0, Politics 2.0.

Hyping new media is nothing new, but lately the marketing meme machine behind Web 2.0 appears to be set on overdrive. It was within such an atmosphere that many contributors to this special issue of First Monday met in Vancouver, Canada to share our critical perspectives of Web 2.0. The meeting was the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) and the title of our panel was “Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0: Surveillance, Discipline, Labor.” I was asked then and now to offer an afterward. Then and now I organize my thoughts around history, hype, and hope.




In his exceptional book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, Fred Turner presents a slice of digital history by tracing the many iterations of Stewart Brand [1]. A sort of techno–Zelig, Brand’s life includes overlaps with a diverse set of people and movements including Norbert Wiener and early cybernetics, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Bucky Fuller and the New Communalists, Howard Rheingold and the WELL, and Louis Rossetto and Wired magazine. Along the way, Turner spends plenty of time with one of Brand’s most inspired creations, the Whole Earth Catalog.

Part manual to countercultural living, part shopping catalog, and part mindmap to Brand’s disparate interests, the Whole Earth Catalog can also be seen as an early example of what many of us these days like to call user–generated content. As a means to distribute power and to increase the cultural range of the Catalog, Brand offered readers the opportunity to suggest and review items for the Catalog, and paid them ten dollars for accepted articles. By doing so, Turner argues, Brand “invited the reader to become a producer of economic value, a contributor to a textual community, and still a buyer of the Catalog.” [2] Readers and writers, consumers and producers, Whole Earth Catalog users were early, pre–Web beta testers for the kind of writeable behaviors we see in today’s social media, or what Axel Bruns wonderfully labels produsage [3].

Turner’s book reminds us that in our age of everything new and everything now we could use a little history. To better wrap our heads around Web 2.0, its historical contexts, and its revolutionary potential, we need more histories. We need more histories of new media like Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New, Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben’s Netizens, Kate Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, and Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro’s Prefiguring Cyberculture [4]. We need more histories of other once–new media like Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On–Line Pioneers, Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, and Darren Wershler–Henry’s The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting [5]. We need more histories of residual media [6] and dead media [7]. And we need more histories of Web 2.0 – preferably public, free, critical, interdisciplinary, and writeable histories like Trebor Scholz’s “A History of the Social Web” [8] and Mike Wesch’s “Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us” [9].




Speaking of history, does anyone remember

In 1992, two Cornell undergraduates, Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman, met. “One night in college,” according to Paternot, “Todd and I found a chat room online where you’d see messages scrolling by. It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is revolutionary.’” [10] By 1994, they conceived of, a “community site” that offered free tools and templates to make “home pages” and chat rooms. Soon after, the two twenty–somethings graduated and moved from Ithaca to New York City, to a section of Manhattan called “Silicon Alley.” On 13 November 1998, goes public. During the day, shares rose more than 900 percent before closing up 606 percent, making it the largest opening–day gain of any IPO in Wall Street history (up to that point in time) [11]. A few days later, with’s stock valued at US$97 a share, co–founder Paternot is worth US$97 million [12]. Less than three years later, in August 2001, a month before September 11, announced that it was closing its online community business and firing half of its staff.’s stock was worth fourteen cents a share [13].

Their interview with Charlie Rose, on 29 July 1999, is a classic. Paternot gets things started by describing as a community: “one of the most trusted networks of communities, that brings people from around the world, to interact around subjects of interest. So whether it’s building home pages or chatting with one another, it’s all about people with topics of interest.” [14] But it’s Krizelman who explains the business plan: “If you could captivate a person, for hours on end, whether it would be through chat or homepage building, that would be valuable — from an advertising perspective, from a commerce perspective.” [15] Which is, of course, to conflate community and commerce, citizen and consumer. The goal, in other words, is to consumer the user.

Sounds like Facebook’s Beacon, eh? [16]

These days, the obvious needs saying: Don’t believe corporate hype. Corporations exist to make profits, not public goods. Usually, when they say “community” they mean “commerce,” and when they say “aggregation” they mean “advertising.” Here in northern California, what were once dot.coms are now called Web 2.0 startups, but the goal remains the same: to make millions by selling out to Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft [17]. From San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the newest gold rush is on, call it California Ideology 2.0 [18], and hungry ghosts cover the city.




In 1993, the year a nifty new application called the Web browser began to make its presence known, I worked as a teaching assistant with Professors Mary Corbin Sies and Jo Paoletti at the University of Maryland. Our goal was to integrate this Web thing into some of our American Studies undergraduate classes. With a lot of work by us three and a lot of patience among our students, we were able to teach “home page building” in four class periods – two to teach students html, one to teach ftp, and one to teach them Photoshop basics. Suddenly, our students had powerful online platforms to publish their work.

Nearly a decade and a half later, the majority of American youth are already content creators. As a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project reminds us, while more than nine in ten American teens are Internet users, a whopping 59 percent of them report some kind of content creating activity [19]. Whether it is blogging, creating Web sites, sharing photos and videos, making profiles, or remixing found content, today’s American youth are creating and sharing content online. Indeed, by the time many of my students arrive on campus, they are already content creators and I no longer need to teach them html and ftp.

This is the writeable generation, a generation of young people who think of media as something they read and something they write – often simultaneously. This is a generation of content creators, a generation of young people who with the help of Web 2.0 tools know how to create content, how to share content, and how to converse about content. This is the generation for whom broadcast media – and its silent, obedient audiences – is rapidly fading and for whom conversations make more sense than lectures. This is a new generation with new writeable behaviors and it’s hard not to be hopeful about that. End of article


About the author

David Silver is Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies at the University of San Francisco. He blogs at Silver in SF.



1. Fred Turner, 2006. From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2. Ibid., p. 90.

3. Axel Bruns, 2008. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and beyond: From production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

4. Janet Abbate, 1999. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; Lisa Gitelman, 2006. Always already new: Media, history and the data of culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben, 1997. Netizens: On the history and impact of Usenet and the Internet. Los Alamitos, Calif.: IEEE Computer Society Press; N. Katherine Hayles, 1999. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (editors). 2003. Prefiguring cyberculture: An intellectual history. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

5. Tom Standage, 1998. The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century’s on–line pioneers. New York: Walker; Jonathan Sterne, 2003. The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press; Darren S. Wershler–Henry, 2007. The iron whim: A fragmented history of typewriting. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

6. Charles R. Acland (editor), 2007. Residual media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

7. Tom Jennings (moderator), “The dead media project,” at, accessed 10 February 2008.

8. Trebor Scholz, 2007. “A history of the social Web,”, accessed 24 February 2008.

9. Mike Wesch, 2007, “Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us,”, accessed 24 February 2008.

10. Casey Kait and Stephen Weiss, 2001. Digital hustlers: Living large and falling hard in Silicon Alley. New York: Regan Books, p. 271.

11. John Cassidy, 2002. Dot.con: The greatest story ever sold. New York: HarperCollins, pp. 196–197.

12. Stephan Paternot, 2001. A very public offering: A rebel’s story of business excess, success, and reckoning. New York: Wiley.

13. Bob Bobala, 2001. “Last breaths of” Motley Fool (6 August), at, accessed 24 February 2008.

14. “Charlie Rose: July 29, 1999,” (41:50), accessed 24 February 2008.

15. Ibid. at 42:55.

16. Louise Story, 2007, “The evolution of Facebook’s Beacon,” New York Times (29 November), at, accessed 24 February 2008.

17. At the time of this writing, Microsoft is attempting a hostile takeover of Yahoo! By the time of publication, it is entirely possible that three major buyers of Web 2.0 startups will morph into two.

18. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, 1995. “The California ideology,”, accessed 24 February 2008.

19. Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Alexandra Rankin Macgill, and Aaron Smith, 2007. “Teens and social media: The use of social media gains a greater foothold in teen life as they embrace the conversational nature of interactive online media,” p. 2, at, accessed 24 February 2008.


Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, David Silver.

History, Hype, and Hope: An Afterward
by David Silver
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 - 3 March 2008