Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Survival guide for the Web 2.0

Business trends often have grand sounding catch-phrases, which are used so often and in so many different ways that in the end nobody knows what is meant. The current second boom of internet business ventures uses the term "Web 2.0". The basic idea behind that is that in Web 2.0 the user not only consumes content, he also provides it. Thus typical Web 2.0 phenomena are wikis, social networking sites, sites like FlickR or YouTube where users show their photos or videos, and of course blogs. Web 2.0 is more participatory, the user doesn't just receive content, he also creates it, or at least passes it on. That much increased role of the user is not without danger for him. So I would like to give two pieces of advice:

The first advice is to protect your anonymity when creating content. Do not use your real name on the Web 2.0, and limit the amount of really personal data you give out. Obviously that makes participation on sites like MySpace or Friendster difficult. But believe me, your identity is a valuable good, which needs protection. There are numerous stories about people who got expelled from school because they revealed they were gay, or posted photos of themselves being underage, drunk, half-naked, and smoking a joint, or because they posted not-quite-serious threats against their headmaster on MySpace. Youth is definitely the time to try out some stupid things, but you better make sure that this stupidity isn't recorded for eternity, and that photo of you flashing your boobs / smoking a joint doesn't turn up 30 years later while you are trying to get elected into some public office. If you absolutely need to give out your real name and photo on the Web 2.0, make sure it isn't connected to anything you wouldn't want your mother/boss/spouse to hear or know about.

Anonymity is even more important if you are already grown up and have a job. Like the famous blogging Delta stewardess, a blog can get you fired. Especially if you blog *about* your company and your work. So avoid using your real name, job title or description, or photographs from which you could be identified. But even if you just blog about life in general, some flippant remark on your blog might well be construed as being against some company guideline and can get you into deep trouble. Much easier to blog under a pseudonym, a nickname, which can't be traced back to your real identity.

The second piece of advice I would like to give the readers and writers of the Web 2.0, is to be aware that there are different kinds of knowledge. There is the scientifically measurable and verifyable "explicit knowledge", the facts. And there is the more personal "tacit knowledge", which is based on a persons beliefs and opinions. In a textbook, serious newspaper, or dictionary you would expect mostly the first kind. But the Web 2.0 is dominated by the second kind.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. For example if you are wondering whether the trunk of the new car you are looking to buy is big enough to hold your child's stroller, the explicit fact of the trunk having a volume of 400 liters doesn't really help you much. The opinion of somebody who reviews the car on his blog and reports that he found the trunk too small or badly shaped is more relevant to you. That is especially true for things that can't be measured, like "fun". If you try to describe for example a MMORPG by listing things like number of quests, number of races and classes, and "feature lists", it would be very difficult to explain why World of Warcraft is so much more successful than lets say Horizons. It is very hard to describe with measureable facts what makes WoW more fun than Horizons. We often use subscription numbers to describe a MMORPG, just because that is one of the few bits of explicit knowledge we have about these games. If you are an "average person", the statistical chance that you would prefer WoW is high. But if you know a blog with game reviews, and found that in the past the reviewer tended to like the same games as you, his opinion about some game being fun might be a lot more relevant to you than its subscription numbers. There *are* people out there who would enjoy A Tale in the Desert more than they would enjoy World of Warcraft.

Where it gets dangerous is when people start confusing one type of knowledge with another, confusing opinions with facts. When for example I write that WoW had too much raid content added in the last couple of patches, and that this is hurting the game, because the majority of people are casual players, that is only my opinion. But everybody is an expert on the internet, and some other expert will tell you that only additional raid content can save WoW from a mass exodus of bored players. Neither of these statements is a "fact", in the absence of parallel universes it is impossible to scientifically test the longevity of WoW with more casual content against WoW with more raid content. You can weight opinions on the base of supporting arguments and experience, but in the end you can only agree or disagree with them, there is no absolute truth in the matter. If somebody can't grasp a fact, it might well be possible that he is stupid. But most of the people being called idiot on the Web 2.0 just happened to have a different opinion. Calling somebody names on the internet just proves that you can't tell opinions from facts, which is more likely to reflect badly on you than to hurt the guy you called a retard.

And it gets worse, a lot of the information on the Web 2.0 is just plain wrong, because somebody strongly believes in something that is not true, and reports his beliefs like facts. The internet doesn't have a monopoly on falsehoods that people believe in, remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction? Believing in something that doesn't exist can start a war. We tend to believe written words faster than we would believe spoken words. And we tend to believe what the "experts" say. As the internet mainly holds written words, and posing as an expert is easy (Hey! You even believe that I am an expert on MMORPG!), that makes it dangerously easy to spread false information. But even newspapers with editors and legal departments checking every word sometimes end up writing things that are false. So if you get your knowledge from the Web 2.0, from somewhere between UFO sightings reports and instructions on how to build a perpetuum mobile, you have to learn to take all information with a grain of salt. Your first assumption about everything you read on the internet should be that it is just an opinion, a belief, and not necessarily a fact.
When I was much younger ("back in the day" perhaps?) I used to troll AOL Bingo Parlors and chat rooms, without any supervision at all. And I'm talking back when I was single-digit years old. (It even lead to us getting a 2nd phone line so my dad could call home when I was online.) I can't imagine how much online trouble I might have got in if things like MySpace had existed back then.

These days I have a blog that's over a year old. I started it when I was in law school. On it, I'm only identified by my first name though I do give enough personal information that it's not hard to figure out who I am if you're looking for me. I should probably shift it to be more anonymous, at least removing some of the other identifying information, but my theory for it has always been that I don't want to post anything for which I wouldn't want my name associated or attribution given. It limits my posting but I'm constantly aware that this is a public enterprise that may, at some point, be associated with me in real life.

And I once had a professor in law school find it. I know this because he recommended it to my class on our last day of class (though he didn't give my name or hint that the website was associated with a student - though with my first name on it and other identifiable information, it would have been easy for other students to identify me, and at least one did).
I think that Web 2.0 is a great way to gain relevant information on topics that interest me, but like you already pointed out, it can get you into serious trouble if not kept secret. Creating a fictional identity is the best way to avoid running into any Real Life problems; especially if you are one of the millions of people who blog while at work.

Personally I think that a person has the right to say whatever they want as long as it doens't threaten the life or physical well being of another individual. Corporations have been treating their employees like dirt since the beginning of time and still expect employees to display "company loyalty" which I think is a joke. To me there is something wrong with a society that becomes outraged at countries like China for not allowing their citizens to criticize government while at the same time firing employees for criticizing management. Whats next? Will it become ok to revoke citizenship because an individual criticizes the government? When you get right down to it, there is no difference between me bashing my boss and me bashing my governement, except that my company can fire me.
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