Utopian Tendencies Episode 5: the Utopian Rhetoric of Web 2.0

Trying to catch up on the Utopian Tendencies radio show Lauren Heywood and I have been producing the last couple of months. This recording is from the June 26th, 2020 live stream on ds106radio. This was the first time I introduced a reading for us to talk about on the show: Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0?” from 2004. Arguably not a deep dive into the vault, and definitely not as good as Lauren’s topics up and until now, but I figured since we are talking about utopia and technology, it would be valuable to revisit the Web 2.0 days when the utopian rhetoric around social media and the new web was pervasive. What’s more, I was hoping that talking through the essay that tries to define the elements of Web 2.0 might help us understand the era we currently exist within: namely the concentration of social media onto a fewer and fewer platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The era of the blog with its trackbacks, permalinks, and RSS  features were at the very center of the utopian rhetoric of the new web in 2004.

Here is the bit about trackbacks in the article:

Interestingly, two-way links were the goal of early hypertext systems like Xanadu. Hypertext purists have celebrated trackbacks as a step towards two way links. But note that trackbacks are not properly two-way–rather, they are really (potentially) symmetrical one-way links that create the effect of two way links. The difference may seem subtle, but in practice it is enormous. Social networking systems like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, which require acknowledgment by the recipient in order to establish a connection, lack the same scalability as the web. As noted by Caterina Fake, co-founder of the Flickr photo sharing service, attention is only coincidentally reciprocal. (Flickr thus allows users to set watch lists–any user can subscribe to any other user’s photostream via RSS. The object of attention is notified, but does not have to approve the

There is a cruel irony to O’Reilly suggesting the predecessors to Facebook (Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn) would not scalable. Not only did they scale, but the system of control O’Reilly suggests was an issue became the means to lockout so many of the other features in the new web he exults. Namely RSS:

One of the things that has made a difference is a technology called RSS. RSS is the most significant advance in the fundamental architecture of the web since early hackers realized that CGI could be used to create database-backed websites. RSS allows someone to link not just to a page, but to subscribe to it, with notification every time that page changes. Skrenta calls this “the incremental web.” Others call it the “live web”.

We all know the fate of RSS by now, and possibly the most hopeful alternative to the soled sites was shuttered because we depended so deeply upon those sites for the very technology that was a threat to their ability to create their own social network Google+ in 2011. I tend to think of the end of Web 2.0 around 2013 when Google Reader was finally shuttered, but it is arguably much earlier than that.

I particularly enjoyed O’Reilly’s discussion of the permalink as a crucial development in the liberation of the web in the era of Web 2.0. The notion that specific posts could be easily linked to, commented one, and in many ways become a distinct bridge-like entity of a larger web remains compelling, and is something that has not be erased in the same ways as RSS and Trackbacks:

It may seem like a trivial piece of functionality now, but it was effectively the device that turned weblogs from an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlapping communities. For the first time it became relatively easy to gesture directly at a highly specific post on someone else’s site and talk about it. Discussion emerged. Chat emerged. And – as a result – friendships emerged or became more entrenched. The permalink was the first – and most successful – attempt to build bridges between weblogs.


And while sixteen years later the blogosphere is always just one think piece away from a comeback, I think what came through for me on this reading, which is something Kin Lane has been discussing for a long while now, is that the utopian rhetoric around was in many ways predicated on access to the various applications and ecosystems that comprised the web. The ability to mashup data from Google via APIs, create applications on  top of twitter via their API, etc. were all a sign of a healthier, more robust web that has increasingly removed access and closed down and more tightly controlled their API so that so much of the ability to mash-up and integrate various elements of the web is no longer something one can expect, but rather a privilege one hopes the web powers that be will be philanthropic enough to grant us plebeians.  It’s not entirely unlike our current political crisis, the assumptions we made about governance and access have been increasingly eroded and taken away from us that in turn makes us dependent on the most toxic of information systems.

I want to write more about this, but I think I’ll stop here given I have already said too much, and there is a certain amount of guilt wrapped up with the possibilities many of us imagined versus the reality we are living in presently, but I guess the fact I am still blogging my half-baked ideas is something.


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