Web 2.0 Extends Communities: McLuhan and New Communication Technologies

Communication technology extends the senses. Or so claims Marshall McLuhan in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), where he introduces the idea that mediums of communication extend one or more senses or attributes beyond their present limitations.[1] For example the bullhorn extends the voice to reach volumes and distances the voice alone cannot reach. Likewise the telephone extends the voice even farther, and the automobile extends the foot, for the automobile can travel distances farther and velocities greater than a man propelled by his two feet alone could ever hope.

McLuhan also introduces the idea that the medium is the message.[2] His most effective example is that of the light bulb. Not often thought of as a medium, McLuhan shows that the light bulb not only is a medium but is clearly one of no content. Yet the light bulb has a message, the message is the medium of the light bulb itself.[3] Sadly, McLuhan passed away December 31, 1980. But if he was still alive today what would he think of the further advances in communication technology? It is not possible to ask him directly, however, his writings and ideas are left that can guide our study and understanding of the new technology.

“Web 2.0” is a term that has been thrown around for a bit of time to describe the new phenomenon and current trend in the Internet. A large aspect of this trend is the virtual communities forming around websites that are deemed Web 2.0, websites that get a large part of their identity from their social aspects. A trend that is very recent and in its current incarnating, rather unique. Due to this growing social aspect of the Internet and the communities that are forming around particular websites, Web 2.0 extends communities. The methodologies and technologies behind Web 2.0 allow communities to form and exist in ways that was never possible before, and that would not be possible without Web 2.0. Applying McLuhan again to Web 2.0, it is clear that in Web 2.0 the medium is the message, and that message and medium is community. Even though McLuhan is gone, his ideas and theories are still very much applicable to new communication media.

Web 2 point Ohhh!!!

What exactly is Web 2.0? Web 2.0 is just a catchword, jargon that has no concrete definition. The 2.0 is a play off of the comment practice in programming to number the version of products so that the newest release seems better through labeling. Would a consumer prefer Widget 3.5 or Widget 4.7? Thus Web 2.0 is considered the new version of the Internet as compared to the Internet of the late ’90s. There is nothing really inherently different with the Internet today than there was in 1998, there was no worldwide upgrade. Instead, Web 2.0 is used to separate many of the practices of the late ’90s with the practices of today.

Some experts like M. David Peterson, extend the Web version terminology a bit further, and deem Web 2.0 as the period of the Internet boom in the late ’90s, while today the version of the Internet is Web 3.5 working our way towards Web 4.0.[4] Thus, the actual 2.0 is rather arbitrary, yet does have its uses.

Web 2.0 is also used as a marketing ploy to show that lessons have been learned from the Internet boom and subsequent bust of the ’90s to gain back the trust and capital from investors and corporations. It is Web 2.0 now, not 1.0, there will be no bust of the current market, or so the marketers would have everyone believe.

It is argued that the first to coin the term was Tim O’Reilly, with the purpose to indeed show the world that the Web did not crash with the Internet bust, but instead is still very important.[5] Users and designers themselves have also adopted the term and many of the resulting practices to show that they are elite, 1337, and at the top of the Internet hierarchy. Yet when Web 2.0 is referred to, there is some inherent meaning that goes beyond a marketing ploy or jargon. Web 2.0 has changed the way the Internet is used, developing communities that have never existed before.

It is this change, and the new possibilities that come from this change, that Marshall McLuhan would be interested in. How is community extended? What features or aspect of this medium aid in community building, especially in the building of communities that would not exists without this communication technology? It is simple to understand how the phone extends the ear, or the car extends the foot, but how does Web 2.0 extend communities?

Will You Be My Friend?

Web 2.0 sites have some social or community aspect. In fact the sole purpose of certain sites, like Facebook or MySpace, is the generation of an on-line community. Other sites may have alternate features and uses, however their social aspects, and community drive, remain prime features that separate these sites from the rest of the Internet. The social features can include sharing creative or intellectual works with friends who may or may not actually know each other at all, much less be real friends; serving as a communication hub; or sharing new discoveries with others and allowing the community to create the content of the site.

There are reasons that the social and interactive aspects of Web 2.0 exist now in ways they never existed before. The propagation of Internet, especially high-speed, access has contributed to much of Web 2.0. There is now a public that is very much comfortable with the Internet and its uses.

The new technologies and methodologies of Web 2.0 are of great importance to the social and communal aspects of Web 2.0. According to Jenny Preece, chair and professor of the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, there are three key factors to the success of an on-line community, (1) usability, (2) sociability and (3) their affect on the interaction of the community.[6] The technology of Web 2.0 directly affects in the positive the usability and sociability of the communities that are thus formed. New methods of using older technologies as well as research into user interfaces have greatly improved the usability of Web 2.0. The fact that many of these sites’ prime focus is on creating and maintaining an on-line community through friends-lists, commenting, user feedback, and web logs or blogs increase the sociability between users. Finally the increased usability and sociability greatly increases the interaction within the on-line communities formed around Web 2.0 sites.

The Method Behind the Madness

What features of Web 2.0 have allowed the breeding of such vibrant virtual communities? Steve Whittaker, Ellen Isaacs and Vicki O’Day in an Association of Computing Machinery article set the basic foundation for the necessities of a virtual community. Their first goal was to define the core attributes of such a community, which included, (1) a shared goal, interest or need among members; (2) active participation of intense interactions with emotional ties; (3) access to shared resources; (4) reciprocity of information; and (5) shared context.[7] Web 2.0 communities display exactly these features in their implementation.

Users of Facebook share an educational background, as the site groups users according to their college or university. Users are then able to further share interests in user groups within Facebook itself that may mirror real-life communities or may be entirely virtual in nature. MySpace and last.fm users are brought together to share their interests in music. In MySpace this interest is shown by becoming MySpace friends with actual bands and artists and fans of those bands and artists. While at last.fm users are grouped in neighborhoods, where their neighbors are decided by an algorithm that matches users together based on what music they actually listen to.

Most Web 2.0 sites feature user content and commenting as their primary content. Thus in order for the site to be of any success, users must actively participate with passion, or else content would rarely be produced and the site would not last long. Flickr is a site that allows users to share their digital photography, users of YouTube share videos, users of MySpace can share their own music, while users of Newsvine can share the news with each other, by seeding outside links to various news articles of interest or by writing the news or news opinions themselves.

These virtual communities also share their resources and allocate them evenly. Rarely is a user hierarchy put in place, and instead all users are treated as equals, with the same privileges. In the same vain users will support each other, and the veterans will help out the newbies in hopes that one day they will be able to help out someone else. Likewise users are immediately exposed to the conventions and protocols of the community. Jargon is learned, such as seeding at Newsvine, digging at Digg, Facebook friend and Facebook stalking are a few of the many terms used at Facebook. Many of the users of these communities have similar backgrounds due to their shared interests and are thus able to learn and share in the context and terminology that is unique to each community.

Leave Taxonomy to Biology

One of the main features of Web 2.0 that has greatly aided in virtual community growth is the change from a classification based on taxonomy, towards a folksonomy. Taxonomy may be a familiar concept from biology, where it is used to classify organisms into kingdoms, families, species and so on. Likewise, on the Internet, taxonomy is used to classify objects based on a set of predefined terms and often in a hierarchical manner. This may work in biology or geology or another subject, however people, and especially their social relations and communities, cannot be organized this way. Communities and social structures are organic and flowing, and cannot depend on only a limited predetermined classification. It is also rarely the case that a community is arranged in a hierarchy, which is where taxonomy shines.

Folksonomy, a term attributed to Thomas Vander Wal,[8] instead allows users to tag the item being classified, usually with single words. Thus any item tagged with the same word now shares that connection. This directly mimics how people describe themselves and their relationships. Communities often form over shared interests or other shared features, which a folksonomy system of organization allows to naturally develop.

Dude, Keg Party on the InterWeb

Now that it has been shown how Web 2.0 functions to bring about on-line communities, the next logical question is whether an on-line community can function as a real community? This very question is at the heart of Barry Wellman and Milena Guila’s research in Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities. They acknowledge that critics of on-line communities worry that the lack of in-person contact will lead to a life with a lack of meaning and completeness.[9] There has been limited evidence available for their study, however Wellman and Gulia were able to find that on-line communities and relationships are based far more on shared interests than on shared social characteristics such as such as gender or economic status.[10] On-line communities support both weak and strong ties that cut across social milieus, be they interest groups, localities, organizations or nations. As a result, cyberlinks between people become social links between groups that otherwise would be socially and physically dispersed.[11] This study was conducted before the development of Web 2.0, and focused on e-mail lists, discussion boards and similar older Internet technologies, however the findings are quite relevant to the on-line communities formed by Web 2.0. The communities and relationships are formed based on personal interests, without regard to the usual social or physical constraints.

Before media, community was what one made of those who were local to you. Mass media helped create a world-wide community, the global village, but though the world was connected through media, the community still lacked. Media was used to help and to support community, but did not create community. A phone or e-mail could be used to stay in contact with members of a community miles apart, however these media only supported an already existing community. Communities may form based on being fans of a novel or a movie or television series, but the communication technology lacked to truly support these communities.

Web 2.0 in contrast extends communities past what was possible before. At flickr, a user may be friends with people he never met in real life, yet through the sharing of photography they share a social bond that could not exist previously. On Myspace a community forms around the music of an independent musician. Previously the musician would be considered a local artist and have only a following in a small region where their music is experienced live. Yet now, thanks to Myspace, this musician can have more fans in Chicago than they do within a hundred miles of their home town and in no possible sense of the term be considered local.

Jumping back to the Facebook example, a community that is restricted and shares no content, the users are tangled in an intricate web of friends, friends of friends and so on. Groups form for the most simple and unimportant of reasons. Within weeks of its formation, at Newsvine, a user was already calling for the creating of guilds, or communities of interest, where one can debate, learn about new science discoveries or share thoughts on the topic of choice.[12] Web 2.0 at its essence encourages and extends communities past the traditional sense.

McLuhanisms and Conclusions

McLuhan also introduces the concept that the medium is the message. Likewise the message of Web 2.0 is Web 2.0. As will be shown, the content of the many websites falling under Web 2.0 does not matter, does not affect the message. In fact, certain websites have no content in a traditional sense at all. So what is the message of these sites? In fact since these websites also function as a business, recently being bought and sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, what is the product of these ventures? The product is Web 2.0.

What is the product of Web 2.0? Before that is answered, ask what is the message? As McLuhan would say, the medium is the message. As mentioned previously, McLuhan’s most effective example of the medium is the message was the light bulb, a medium of no content, and thus easy to establish that the content could not be the message and that it must be the medium itself. In a similar fashion, Facebook can be used as the prime example to show that the medium of Web 2.0 is the message. The content that is the pictures, videos, blogs, or whatever else does not matter to the message. Facebook for all intensive purposes has no content. It is simply nothing more than a web of friendships explicitly defined. How is this site so popular? How has it become the seventh most visited website on the Internet, and apparently worth from $750 million to $2 billion?[13] What is the message of this site?

The message of this site is community, it is the medium itself. Web 2.0 extends community. Because Web 2.0 relies on users for content, there is not content without users, but they do far more than just add content. The content alone would not be a medium, would not function at all. What separates Web 2.0 from traditional media? The community is what is different. The users may provide the content, but far more importantly users provide the community. The community is the message. Web 2.0 is community, alters our understanding of community, extends community.

Communities do not have to be local groups of similar social backgrounds. Instead communication technologies, especially the Internet, have shown that communities can span the globe and socio-economic status. Web 2.0 takes these communities to the next level, Web 2.0 is communities and every aspect of Web 2.0 fosters community building and growth. Communities can now be social networks, networks that span the globe. It is not that the world is a global village, but as McLuhan originally said, one’s “village” could span the globe.[14] Web 2.0 is a key aspect in the expansion and extension of that village across the globe.

Just for fun

This paper was originally written for a communication class of mine, Seminar on Society and Technology. I figured why not share this with the users of Web 2.0 and see what you have to say. Please note that this was a paper intended for a communication audience, not a tech audience, and thus judge not the tech aspects, but instead the overall scholarly ideas. Well unless there is a blatant tech error, then feel free to correct.

  1. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1964), 21. ↩︎

  2. Ibid., 7. ↩︎

  3. Ibid., 8. ↩︎

  4. M. David Peterson, "Web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, +, Each One Exists Now, So What’s All the Fuss?," XsLTBlog.com, August 11, 2005, accessed April 25, 2006. ↩︎

  5. Tim O’Reilly, "What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software," O’Reilly Net, September 30, 2005, accessed April 25, 2006. ↩︎

  6. Jenny Preece, "Online communities: Usability, Sociability, Theory and Methods," in Frontiers of Human-Centered Computing, Online Communities and Virtual Environments, ed. Rae Earnshaw et al. (London: Springer-Verlag), 264, doi: 10.1007/978-1-4471-0259-5_18 ↩︎

  7. Steve Whittaker, Ellen Isaacs and Vicki O’Day, "Widening the Net: Workshop Report on the Theory and Practice of Physical and Network Communities," ACM SIGCHI Vol. 29 No. 3 (July 1997), accessed April 25, 2006. ↩︎

  8. Gene Smith, "Folksonomy: Social Classification," Atomiq.org, August 3, 2004, accessed April 25, 2006. ↩︎

  9. Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia, "Virtual Communities as Communities: Net Surfers Don’t Ride Alone," in Communities in Cyberspace, ed. Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock (New York: Routledge, 1999), 168. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 183. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 185. ↩︎

  12. Mykola Bilokonsky, "Guilds: A History Lesson," darkside.newsvine.com, January 31, 2006, accessed April 25, 2006. ↩︎

  13. Steve Rosenbush, "Facebook’s on the Block," Businessweek Online, March 27, 2006, accessed April 25 2006. ↩︎

  14. Wellman and Gulia, "Virtual Communities as Communities," 168. ↩︎