This blog post provides a brief overview and analysis of Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0” (2005) and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008), as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age at Harvard Kennedy School.
Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0” provides powerful insights into the concept of web as platform, as well as the key features that have allowed companies, such as Google and Flickr, to thrive in the Web 2.0 world. O’Reilly argues that these companies’ success stems from their focus on continuous updates, rather than periodic releases, and the ability they give users to be co-creators of their products. From Amazon.com reviews to Google searches, users’ input is utilized to make constant improvements to products. And the more people participate in that process, the more valuable the products (and the unique databases that have been developed to manage them) become. Web 2.0 companies’ success is also rooted in designing software that’s usable across devices (think iTunes), that’s dedicated to enhancing the users’ experiences online, and that provides users with the ability to access the edges as well as the center (think the Long Tail).
Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody focuses primarily on the impact of the Internet and technology on the way that people form groups and interact with one another. The Internet has dramatically reduced the barriers to group formation, diminished the need for hierarchy in many cases, offered anyone the chance to self-publish, and strengthened the ability of dispersed individuals to come together to take action. Shirky has a generally positive outlook on the possibilities the Internet unleashes, but recognizes that its richness includes not only hope but also some dark spots (for instance, pro-eating disorder websites).
Both pieces demonstrate how people, individually and collectively, remain the source from which the Internet, its successes, and its failures flow. And O’Reilly clearly makes the case for why harnessing this energy is key to companies’ successes in the Web 2.0 era. As companies draw on the collective intelligence of users to improve products, users also derive greater value from the products that make their goals more attainable. As Shirky notes, “social tools don’t create collective action–they merely remove the obstacles to it” (125).
As a student of public policy, the concept of collecting input and continuously refining a platform to meet users’ needs (as in Web 2.0) strikes me as a democratic process with the potential for developing more people-centric policies. Shirky explores this concept as well in his 2012 Ted Talk on how the Internet will transform government.
Today, we as citizens of a connected world have greater opportunities to form groups and take collective action, including vis-à-vis traditional institutions. As Shirky explains, the “absolute” advantages of institutions such as schools and governments remain, but the “relative” ones are gone (2008, 27). Everyone, not only bureaucrats and policy experts, now has the chance to participate in an unprecedented manner in the shaping of policy and governance. To seize these opportunities, we must be digitally literate. Forming and harnessing digital connections has been and will continue to be a powerful step toward creating more a more participatory policy process.