Among the top 100 US Websites (in terms of estimated monthly unique visitors) we no longer only find traditional Websites that were established in the 1990s (such as yahoo.com, msn.com, ebay.com, Microsoft.com, aol.com, amazon.com), but also new Websites and platforms such as facebook.com (#3, 100M+ users), youtube.com (#5, 80M+ users), wikipedia.org (#7, 74M+ users), myspace.com (#12, 54M+ users), craigslist.org (#16, 50M+ users), blogspot.com (#14, 52M+ users), wordpress.com (#23, 31M+ users), flickr.com (#31, 21M+ users), blogger.com (#37, 19M+ users), metacafe.com (#67, 11M+ users), and monster.com (#33, 20M+ users) [47
Such sites do not focus on information provision, but either combine several traditional Internet functions (information, data upload and sharing, email, discussion boards, multimedia, etc.) as in the case of social networking platforms or employ relative novel forms of information and communication such as in the case of wikis, blogging, and tagging. Terms such as “Web 2.0” and “Social Software” that should indicate that the Web has become strongly communicative, are used frequently for describing such platforms.
The notions of Social Software and Web 2.0 have thus far been vague; there is no common understanding in existence. The concepts seem to be centered on the notions of online communication, community-formation, and collaboration. In some definitions only one of these three elements is present, in others they are combined. So far it remains unclear what exactly is novel
and what is social
about it. What seems obvious is that Web 2.0 is not a technological novelty since the technological basis of these platforms and networks (such as Wikis, Ajax, etc.
) have been developed years before terms such as Social Software and Web 2.0 have emerged. This view suggests that these notions refer to a social
novelty. In this paper we want to contribute to the theoretical clarification of notions like Web 2.0 and Social Software by defining the Web as techno-social system. We try to answer the question, which understandings of Social Software and Web 2.0 exist, and how they can be typified. Furthermore, we analyze what is social
about Social Software (section 2
) by referring to traditional sociological understandings of sociality. In section 3
, we discuss how the Web can be explained as a dynamic process. The research methods employed in this paper are dialectical social theory construction and systems theory, both based on the results of a literature survey.
The basic research question underlying this paper is: how should the World Wide Web be defined? For dealing with this question, we treat further questions: which social theories can be employed for defining the World Wide Web? What are the political implications of employing social theories for defining the World Wide Web? For us, these research tasks also have a normative dimension. Therefore, we are not just interested in a social theory of the Internet, but in a critical social theory of the Internet that helps to understand how computing in general and Internet and World Wide Web usage in particular can help to improve the situation of humanity and to establish a better world.
The problem is that in current academic, private, and public debates, many observers claim that the World Wide Web has become more social.. However, the notion of sociality underlying these claims, is mostly not really reflected. There is a lack of thinking about what sociality means and what sociality on the World Wide Web means in scholarly and non-scholarly discussions about changes of the Web. We therefore think that social theory is needed for helping scholars and citizens to gain a more precise understanding of sociality and sociality on the Web. The goal of our work is to contribute to this task.
David Beer and Roger Burrows [1
] have argued already in 2007 that a sociology of and in Web 2.0 is needed. So far there is no theoretical clarification of these notions available. Most definitions of these terms are marketing based or rather unreflected. The paper at hand seeks to establish a sociology of Web 2.0 and Social Software by clarifying their theoretical foundations from a sociological view. One of the authors has recently argued that what is primarily needed is not a phenomenology or empirical social research of the Web, but a critical theory of the Internet and society because changing societal circumstances create situations, in which new concepts need to be clarified and social problems emerge, which need to be solved [2
We identify three qualities of the World Wide Web, namely Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and Web 3.0. We use the terms Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web 3.0 not in a technical sense, but for describing and characterizing the social dynamics and information processes that are part of the Internet. These notions are based on the idea of knowledge as a threefold dynamic process of cognition, communication, and co-operation [3
]. In our terms the notion of the Web refers to the qualities of the Web as a techno-social system that enhance human cognition, communication, and co-operation. Cognition is the necessary prerequisite for communication and the precondition for the emergence of co-operation. In other words: in order to co-operate you need to communicate and in order to communicate you need to cognize. The three types of Web that we identify are based on an analytical distinction. This distinction does not imply a temporal order (such as in versions of a software, where the upper version always exists at a later point of time) or an evolutionary process. The distinction indicates that all Web 3.0 applications (co-operation) and processes also include aspects of communication and cognition and that all Web 2.0 applications (communication) also include cognition. The distinction is based on the insight of knowledge as threefold process that all communication processes require cognition, but not all cognition processes result in communication, and that all co-operation processes require communication and cognition, but not all cognition and communication processes result in co-operation.
By cognition we want to refer to the understanding that a person, on a subjective systemic knowledge,1
connects him- or herself to another person by using certain mediating systems. When it comes to feedback, the persons enter an objective mutual relationship, i.e.
, communication. Communicating knowledge from one system to another causes structural changes in the receiving system. From communication processes shared or jointly produced resources can emerge, i.e.
, co-operation. These processes represent thus one important dimension, against which qualities of the World Wide Web have to be assessed.
Based on our understanding of knowledge as a dynamic process, we outline three qualities of the World Wide Web. Accordingly, we define Web 1.0 as a tool for cognition, Web 2.0 as a medium for human communication, and Web 3.0 as networked digital technology that supports human co-operation.
3. Towards a Theory of the Web
We define the World Wide Web (as the most prominent part of the Internet) as a techno-social system, a system where humans interact based on technological networks. The notion of the techno-social system
refers to the fact that the Web cannot be defined without connection to the human social realm. On the one hand, the Web as part of the Internet belongs to the technological infrastructure of society, which is itself a materialized outcome of social action. On the other hand, the Web is a social system of mediated cognition, communication, and cooperation, which is based on this infrastructure as means of its realization. In both cases human agents interact, they act as producers and users. The Web is the result of these interactions. The human agents are the driving force behind the construction and reconstruction of this overall system in all of its facets. This logic of a techno-social production and reproduction can be described as a dialectical relationship between human social agency and its intended and also its unintended consequences. Emerging from the local level of social interaction, the consequences of this action constitute a global level of social structure; the latter, in turn, influences further processes of action as it enables and constrains them at the same time [38
]. We speak of techno-social systems and not of socio-technological systems because in the English language the first term in a composite term further characterizes the second term, which is considered as the main characteristic. Therefore, the term socio-technological system stresses primarily technological aspects, whereas we think that all relations of humans are primarily social and societal. Technological systems are primarily social systems, technology is a medium that enables and constrains social action. The term techno-social systems expresses this circumstance better than the term socio-technical system, which can invoke techno-deterministic meanings. With the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach we share the critique of technological determinism and that technology is socially constituted. However, the SCOT approach frequently underestimates the complexity of technology that can result in unpredictable outcomes and effects of technology and technology usage. We therefore favour the approach of the mutual shaping of technology and society, in which technology and society shape each other in complex ways and have a relative autonomy. We see dialectical sociological theories, such as Giddens’ structuration theory, suited for helping to ground the mutual shaping approach.
Thus, we do not speak of technologies as something detached from humans, but of systems in which technologies and humans are mutually connected and produce each other.
Our model of the Web is not a development model, i.e., it does not operate within time and does not identify succeeding stages. It provides an analytical separation that allows to distinguish different techno-social Web systems. We find emergent properties in the model, i.e., Web types that have new qualities based on qualities of other types, but at the same time go beyond these types. This model is thus not to be understood as a means of prediction. It is not a scheme of linear progression from one state to another. It attempts at giving an account of the necessary condition for a next step, which, in the past, occurred as a contingency and, in the future, might or might not be taken. How is it that Web 2.0 can be interpreted as successor of something called retrospectively Web 1.0 and what are the possibilities for a Web 3.0 to develop prospectively? This is the question that we want to address. And the methodology we use to give an answer is to investigate to what extent Web 1.0 can be considered a necessary condition for Web 2.0 as well as in what respect Web 2.0 may turn out a necessary condition for Web 3.0. We do so by comparing Web 2.0 with Web 1.0 to find out about identical features and qualities and about differences between Web 1.0. We are further looking for qualitative differences within Web 2.0 that might anticipate Web 3.0. Today, the Web is mainly a Web of cognition and communication. We find certain technologies of co-operation such as wikis, but they still constitute a minority of the Web. Therefore, we can say that a fully co-operative Web does not yet exist and it is unclear if it will ever come into existence or not.
In order to be able to make empirical observations, one needs theoretical concepts that can be applied. We are utilizing a concept of information based on different subprocesses of information that take place in social life and are technically supported by ICTs. These are cognitive, communicative, and co-operative processes.
Cognitive processes (including emotional ones) are individual, or ,in case of any supra-individual social agency named a subject, intra-subjective processes of generating information. Human-Computer Interaction as discipline deals with how cognition is being supported and influenced by using ICTs.
Communicative processes are interactive, that is, among individuals or other social subjects. Due to the coupling of cognitive subjects, communicative processes can be understood as information generation processes. Computer-mediated communication deals with these processes supported by ICTs
Cooperative processes are integrative, concern the supra-individual level and let information emerge from synergetic effects of communicating subjects. Originally, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work researched this topic from the perspective of the involvement of ICTs. Nowadays, this approach takes advantage from research in collective intelligence, wisdom of the crowds and so on.
From these definitions follows that cognition is the necessary condition for communication and communication the necessary condition for cooperation. In addition, we assume that if one level serves the function of a necessary condition for the next higher level, then the lower level might be influenced, shaped, adjusted according to this function by the higher level. Communication emerges from cognition, co-operation emerges from communication: This means that a subset of cognition processes forms communication processes and that a subset of communication processes are co-operation processes. Communication processes are cognition processes with specific, additional qualities. Co-operation processes are communication processes with specific, additional qualities.
Therefore, we can categorize Web phenomena according to the dimensions of information generation. The advantages of distinguishing three forms of information processes on the World Wide Web are that this allows classifying Web-based technologies, that it allows connecting Internet studies and sociological theory, that it helps answering the question what is social about the World Wide Web and World Wide Web usage, that it clarifies what the term information on the World Wide Web means so that the notion of the World Wide Web as information system becomes clearer and information science and Internet research can be connected.
Furthermore, since deliberating on Web 3.0 includes technology assessment and design of technology (“Technikgestaltung”), taking a neutral, value-free stance in identifying the necessary conditions for the possible future of the Net is not appropriate. We have to take that into consideration, which is not only possible, but also desirable. This concept makes our approach a critical one. It includes not only an account of the potential that is given with the actual, but also an evaluation of the potential, which sorts out the desired. Thus, our philosophy embraces an ascendance from the potential given now to the actual to be established in the future as well as an ascendance from the less good now to the better then which altogether yields the Not-Yet in critical theorist Ernst Bloch’s sense [39
]. That is, we criticize the present against the blueprint of a better future. And we do this, after Bloch, by identifying phenomena hic et nunc and hidden in the present that nevertheless are able to anticipate and foreshadow a possible better future. This possible better future is cast as vision of a Global Sustainable Information Society. By that we define a society that, on a planetary scale, is set on a path of sustainable development by the help of ICTs. That is, we suggest that the overall value be sustainability that denotes a society’s ability to perpetuate its own development. Complying with sustainability implies complying with social values like justice, equality, freedom, and solidarity as well as with sustainability in the ecological and technological sense. These values to be implemented need, above all, the collaboration of different partitions of humankind, a planetary discourse aimed at co-operation, and intelligent actors ready for the planetary discourse.
Thus, we can evaluate Web phenomena according to their contribution to processes of how people can work together, share resources, co-produce, co-act, and engage in activities that benefit all, which addresses the cooperative dimension, according to the planetary discourse, which addresses the communicative dimension, and according to the intelligence of actors, which addresses the cognitive dimension.
Given these presuppositions, we can categorize and evaluate Web phenomena. We do not do empirical research on our own here, but draw upon generalizations of other works. In particular, we discuss Benkler [40
], Sunstein [41
], Lovink [42
], Gurstein [43
], and Bruns [44
When addressing eutopian and dystopian views regarding the development of the Net, that is, the view of virtual communities to revitalize human communal existence and the view of physical communities being supplanted rather than being supplemented, Yochai Benkler [40
] uses the distinction between strong ties and weak ties, introduced by Mark Granovetter, to summarize empirical studies on how ICTs strengthen or fragment social relations as follows: strong ties, which relate to family and local communities, were not weakened, but rather strengthened by the use of ICTs, and new weak ties were created in addition (see chapter 10). These new weak ties have established what is known by the terms “communities of practice” and “communities of interest”; they are instrumental for the individual, but not in the way that they are to become the dominant mode of connecting to other people. However, Benkler seems to see an exception from this rule: the emergence of Social Software and peer-production like with F/OSS or Wikipedia make the group more important than the individual; they go beyond a community of mere interest in that they “allow the relationship to thicken over time” [40
]. Overall, Benkler’s assessment is rather optimistic.
Cass R. Sunstein [41
], who deliberates over how many minds can produce knowledge and avoid failures, also arrives at a rather positive evaluation of F/OSS and Wikipedia. The following factors have led to the success of F/OSS: “Many people are willing and able to contribute, sometimes with the prospect of economic reward, sometimes without any such prospect. It is often easy to see whether proposed changes are good ones. For open source projects, filters are put in place to protect against errors. The problems associated with deliberation can be reduced because we are often dealing with eureka-type problems, where deliberation works well. Open source projects typically combine deliberation with access to widely dispersed information and creativity” [41
]. And Wikipedia “provides an exceptional opportunity to aggregate the information held by many minds. Wikipedia itself offers a series of deliberative forums in which disagreements can be explored” [41
]. Contrary to F/OSS and Wikipedia, the blogosphere “offers a stunningly diverse range of claims, perspectives, rants, insights, lies, facts, falsehood, sense, and nonsense” [41
]. Sunstein lists some positive examples, but they seem to be outweighed by negative ones because the blogosphere “runs into the usual pitfalls that undermine deliberation, sometimes in heightened forms” [41
Geert Lovink [42
], who sets out to theorize Internet culture, is critical of the blogosphere to an even greater extent. According to the data he finds, blogs are used primarily as instruments for managing one’s self, for marketing one’s self, for making P.R. for one’s self. Therefore, he doubts that blogs belong to groupware or Social Software. They are rather the follow-up generation of the homepage. He quotes from a blog that writers do not care about whether or not a community forms as a result of their writing. Blogging, he says, is competing for a maximum of attention. And, we can add, this is true not only for the blogosphere. Here the similarity to the sphere of so-called Social Software platforms like Facebook is striking: what counts is being linked. Lovink criticizes the superficiality of content. In many cases existing information is only reproduced, he bemoans, and no new content is created. At the same time he admits that blogging, annotating, and building links could be a start for defeating the indifference. Together with Ned Rossiter he opts for “organized networks” that are useful in strategic contexts that transcend tactical ones. “Networked multitudes create temporary and voluntary forms of collaboration that transcend but do not necessary disrupt the Age of Disengagement” [45
]. In organized networks Lovink seems to realize the ideal of free co-operation, in which the result outperforms the sum of individual performances.
Michael Gurstein [43
] distinguishes between networks
. While networks are “structured around the relationships of autonomous and self-directed individual actors (or nodes) where the basic structuring is of individuals (nodes) interacting with other individuals (nodes) with linkages between nodes being based on individual choice”, communities “assume collectivity or communality within a shared framework which may include common values, norms, rules of behaviour, goals and so on” [43
]. He refers to Barry Wellman’s notion of “networked individualism”, the meaning of which he puts on a level with the meaning of the “Facebook society”. He interprets Wellman’s networks as externally driven ones that combine fragmented individuals and contrasts it with “self-initiated (self-organized) and participatory networks, which inter-link individuals not on the basis of fragments of identity, but on the basis of self-initiated and self-realized identities. These networks function as ‘communities’ (whether based on physical or virtual connections) through which action may be undertaken, projects realized, reality confronted and modified” [43
]. “These communities provide a basis or a foundation element for the construction of an alternative reality” [43
]. Community Informatics then is the way to “provide the means for communities to be enabled and empowered and to effect action in the world” [43
Last not least, Axel Bruns [44
] who came to call the combined producers and users of collaborative content creation "produsers" makes use of the notion of communities as opposed to traditional ways of production. In the introduction to his book, he says that such modes of content-creation "are more closely aligned with the emergent organizational principles in social communities than with the predetermined, supposedly optimized rigid structures of governance in the corporate sphere. User-led content creation in this new model harnesses the collected, collective intelligence of all participants, and manages – though in some cases better than in others – to direct their contributions to where they are best able to make a positive impact" [44
]. By the notion of collective intelligence, Bruns relates to philosopher of cyberspace Pierre Levy's ideas.
Now, applying our model to the theoretical findings presented above, we put forth the following judgment: Web 2.0 is something ambiguous, it oscillates between a positive and a negative manifestation, and, because of that, it is likely to be transitory.
On the one hand, the usage of terms like “Social Software”, “social media”, “social networking” aimed at characterizing Web 2.0, seems to typify an euphemistic ideology because the meaning of “social” blurs the distinction between the interaction of actors and the relationships that emerge from these interactions and exert a kind of dominance over these interactions, in turn. That people interact on the Web does not tell us anything about the quality of these interactions and the underlying power structures. Therefore, discussions of normative and desirable aspects of the Web are needed that avoid affirmation. Web 2.0 shares with Web 1.0 that it is nowadays instrumental for competition in the capitalist economy that shapes Internet usage and results in the fact that actors who hold economic or political power are more visible on the Internet. Thus, it lays emphasis on individuals or individual organizations being cognized and recognized by other individuals or individual organizations. What makes Web 2.0 distinct from Web 1.0 is an increase in interaction facilitated by new technological applications. However, interaction is functional for gaining attention, thus communication serves cognition instead of the other way round, let alone communication serving cooperation. Bearing in mind that “communities” are entities belonging to the supra-individual level, so-called “communities of practice” or “communities of interest”, in which individual actors gather to pursue some practice – without need to share some interest – or to pursue some personal interest, are instrumental to the individual actors only and do not qualify for the label of “community”. They represent weak ties that need not thicken among individual actors that are networked. Social networks reside on the interactive level, but not on the integrative level. Barry Wellman’s networked individualism seems to be the predominant characteristic of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is predominantly a Web of competition, not a Web of co-operation (Web 3.0) that benefits all humans [2
On the other hand, examples of “communities of action”, true communities that exist in today’s reality, can be found in cyberspace. An example is Wikipedia, where humans co-operate in order to produce a world repository of knowledge. Another one is F/OSS, where software is produced for the world by means of co-operation. Also online communication and co-operation frequently results in offline action, as for example the phenomenon of cyberprotest shows. Probably the best example in this respect is that the movement for alternative globalization co-ordinates most of its protest actions with the help of the Internet and documents actions on the alternative online news platform Indymedia. There is a minor faction of blogs devoted to co-operation by helping to bring about a new way of thinking as an underpinning for political action in a global society. Examples are anti-war blogs. From a sociological, techno-social-systems point of view, these undertakings in peer production show that there are possibilities for transcending networked individualism and for realizing “networked communities” or “community networks”, as Gurstein [43
] puts it. But these possibilities are islands of an alternative reality that point to the level of co-operation, albeit under the prevalence of the communicative and cognitive restraints of networked individualism and an overall competitive society that is based on egotism, accumulation, and heteronomy. These islands might become spearheads of a transition to a Web 3.0 that enables and empowers communities such that a reorganization of today’s societies into a Global Sustainable Information Society can be envisaged. They might turn out as anticipations of a future development only after this development happened to come true. So far they manifest what is possible today and desirable for tomorrow too. The future is open due to the complexity and indeterminacy of human behaviour. Therefore, potentials are first of all unrealized, they can remain potentials forever if humans do not consciously act in fundamentally transformative ways. The negative potentials of the Web that predominate today are likely to be outcomes of the Web because we live in a predominantly competitive society. Alternative developments are much more unlikely because they require societal transformations and do not automatically emanate from a Web that is shaped by the existing society. The emergence of a co-operative Web is not a technological issue, but one that requires the transformation of society.
Thus, we want to conclude: in principle, the World Wide Web, as the Internet at all, by virtue of its technical qualities, has the potential for transforming societies into networked communities so that it can advance from the cognitive and communicative levels of information generation towards the co-operative level, on which the collective intelligence of humanity might facilitate the collective action needed for the survival of mankind. Whether or not this will come true and Web 3.0 will look alike, is up to the forces that shape technology nowadays and will be determined by the outcome of social struggles that shape techno-social systems.