The term “Web 2.0” does not refer to any technical advancement, but instead to a change in the way software developers and end users are using the World Wide Web. In this new model for the internet everyone is equal and has the opportunity to share their opinions or administrate their own website. User generated content is an important aspect in this, where a site requires a certain amount of input from the user to create the content. Obvious examples of this change are social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, video-hosting sites like YouTube as well as blogs, Wikipedia and Google Maps’ Explore function. Most of these websites allow other users to comment on or reply to the original object.
In this essay I intend to explore these sites and their role in modern society, particularly focusing on the way they are affecting our relationship with themes such as secrecy and privacy. In 2009, it has been estimated that a quarter of the world’s population use the resource of the Internet. It has never been easier for people to connect across the world. Millions of strangers now have the ability to come together and share common experiences and interests. As western society becomes increasingly secularised (with the possible exception of the USA) and conventional religion takes a back seat a phenomenon is occurring on the internet. Traditionally confession happened in a place of worship, between a religious leader and the confessor and the identity of the confessor was kept a secret. Now, there are several sites popping up on the internet offering a similar service, without asking for anything in return.
I have held an interest in this subject ever since I was first linked to Frank Warren’s www.postsecret.com. This site asks users to send secrets on one side of a postcard to Warren’s home address and to use a certain amount of creativity in their efforts. Postsecret is the most popular example of a confessional site, but I am also interested in things like Twitter and Facebook, where it is easy to quickly display one’s life to the world, or online banking, which asks a person to trust the internet with all their finances – even when they are aware fraudulent “phishing scams” exist. I find it fascinating that the internet offers a chance to become whomever you desire. This feature can be used innocently, in programs such as SecondLife, where the user creates a persona which can be as life like or as fanciful as they wish, or for the most sinister means such as fraud or for grooming.
As part of my research I would like to interview Frank Warren, and attempt to get a postcard picked for “Sunday Secrets”. Though I have been an avid voyeur of the secrets posted there for 4 years now, I have never become an active participant, and sent in a secret of my own. I think this will help me understand what motivates people to take part and what emotions and feelings are evoked when sending a card.
Topics such as this are so new – the internet was only set up in a meaningful way in the mid-1990s – that it can be quite difficult to find relevant, academic literature, which can be regarded as more than just opinion. A Google search of “Web 2.0” using the Timeline application yields results no older than mid-2005, with the majority falling between 2007 and 2008. There are plenty of authors writing about the psychology and anthropology involved in secrecy and private lives, and several writing about the influence of Web 2.0 but few that combine the two – and that is my challenge.
The term “Web 2.0” does not refer to any technical advancement in the internet, but instead to a change in the way software developers and end users are using the World Wide Web. These websites require some form of input from the audience to make up the bulk of their substance. Examples of this change are social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter, video-hosting sites like YouTube as well as bogs, Wikipedia and Google Maps’ Explore function. Most of these websites allow other users to comment on or reply to the original object.
As these tools become more and more common to everyday use it is possible to see a shift towards the Internet being greatly edited and used by the amateur user. Is this change in power a positive or negative transformation? During the summer of 2009, after the controversial election President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, the Iranian government imposed strict limits on foreign media within the country, requiring journalists to obtain permission before leaving their offices. As the majority of media in Iran is government controlled, protests against the government and the violence involved were going largely unheard. Iranian’s began Tweeting their experiences and soon #iranelection was a Trending Topic (and remained so for a considerable time). Since then the hash-tag has never disappeared from Twitter (see Figure 1.)
Figure 1 - Taken from Trendistic.com/iranelection
Soon eyewitnesses were uploading their pictures and videos to sites such as Flickr and YouTube – many showing graphic scenes of violence and bloodshed. Users also began to overlay their avatars in green to show their support for those in Iran. So this seems like a positive shift towards users having power on the Internet – giving repressed people a voice, raising an awareness of the situation and letting others show their support. However, as was discussed on the 04/11/09 edition of Radio 4’s Moral Maze which was about Twitter and it’s power to create protest and “mobs”, this wasn’t nessicarily the positive, free protest of the Iranian people. It is known that many accounts Tweeting about the election were actually agent provocateurs working for the Iranian government, which were trying to give out misinformation. While it would seem that a large amount of attention was being drawn to the plight of the Iranian people by the movement, many of the Tweets coming from outside Iran clearly were ill-informed about the situation or were viral RTs. Social media such as Twitter allows the user to express an opinion, or re-express the opinion of someone else, with little thought or consideration. On the other hand Twitter is often used as a place to bounce readers to news sites and blogs, which can help them, create more enlightened opinions on a subject. Those who argue for Twitter would say that the Iranian people would not be on the streets protesting if Twitter had not been there to organise and liberate them. Those apposed argue back saying that they were on the streets because they had been oppressed for 30 years.
With this ability for amateurs to take control of the web, there is clearly a loss in proffesional opinion – informed experts, professional journalists and newspapers, web designers and official sites all lose out. And we lose their expertise. While it may be liberating for the man on the street, or rather behind his computer, to express his opinion – “the opinion of the people” (which it so often is not) – he has no real knowledge of what it is to practise real journalism. Usually his information will be at least second hand, or mere opinion, rather than the more reliable first hand experience a journalist has the resources to find. In his book The Cult of the Amateur – an exploration of the way the Web 2.0 revolution has handed the web to the narcissistic citizen - Andrew Keen gives his opinion of this shift;
“For the real consequence of the Web 2.0 revolution is less culture, less reliable news, and a chaos of useless information. One chilling reality in this brave new digital epoch is the blurring, obfuscation and even disappearance of truth.” (Keen, p.16; 2007)
He also warns that this model of media breaks the world into “a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile” (Keen, p.17; 2007).
Of course there are examples of professionals and experts abusing the opportunity the Internet presents for them to pretend to be amateurs. For example, a video appeared on YouTube, parodying Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, mocking it’s serious message. This seemingly homemade video, which has at the time of writing received 602,000 views, turned out to have originated from DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C. lobbying firm whose clients include ExxonMobil.
When one uses the Internet, a strange thing is happening. With face to face interaction, and even with a phonecall it is possible to know something about the person with which you are communicating. If you can see them then you can make a guess at their age, can read their body language and make assumptions about their character based on the information your eyes have collected. When speaking on the phone things such as accent and tone of voice give away personality traits and basic personal information. The Internet however provides a completely anonymous communication platform. This puts an interesting spin on our ideas of trust, truth and privacy.
Rabinowitz’s essay Soft Fictions and Intimate Documents: Can Feminism Be Posthuman? proposes that woman are in fact “posthuman” as until the recent achievements of the feminist movement history has been recorded in terms of “Man” and from a male perspective. This led me to question whether the interface of ones computer is a “posthuman”. A remote user, a stranger, gives the machine a voice – but they are so distant to us that they are dehumanised and we are less sensitive to the reality. Do we trust these posthuman’s because we feel they can not betray us? Or perhaps it is just much easier to confess to a faceless machine, as they do not appear to judge our behaviour. If we consider them “posthuman”, outside conventional human society, then perhaps they can sympathise with our unconventional secrets.
An example of this is the apparent desensitising of people in relation to bloodshed and war in the media. In an article (A Desensitized American Psyche, 10/04/09) for The Harvard Crimson, the daily newspaper from Harvard University, Andrew Nunnelly discusses the recent lifting of an 18 year ban, which prevented the American press from reporting on the return to the USA of the bodies of fallen soldiers. The ban was intended as a mark of respect and to protect the privacy of the families involed. Recently however it had been critised as an attempt to hide the true cost of the Gulf wars. Many are pleased by this lifting, for the sake of free speech and political awareness, but as Nunnelly comments;
“in a society that has already been desensitized to death and violence, and which revels in the public exposure of all things private, I think that it is possible that our opinions on the issue have less to do with indignation about two wars and more to do with our warped, Web 2.0 understanding of privacy.”
The Vietnam war was the first time that the American public had been exposed to the true horrors of war – through televised news reels. At the time these were shocking to civilians, but now seem relatively tame. We witness these things everyday, are updated every minute by 24 hour news channels and internet news sites. We also consume violent war movies and increasingly realistic computer games for fun. It is obvious that the remoteness of the person/screen interaction has contribuated to this. It has also contributed to our thirst for information on aspects of the private lives of celebrities and politicians.
The British documentary Starsuckers (Chris Atkins, 2009) is an exploration of the modern obsession with celebrity life. The film claims that our need for celebrity news is created by our brains which developed when we were still shuffling around in caves. In the early days of the human, those who were part of large groups tended to out survive individuals. The most popular members of the group tended to emerge as the leaders, thus if you yourself could not become a leader it was wise to make sure you stayed close to these leaders. So we seek to know the private lives of everyone, in an attempt to understand them better.
But of course, we know in the back of our minds that when we converse with a screen, we are conversing with a human somewhere. Again, we are lilberated by the distance we feel from them. Our personal lives will not affect those of strangers.
Looking specifically at www.postsecret.blogspot.com we find a website devoted to the secrets of it’s viewers. As mentioned in my introduction this site requires users to send in postcards which tell a secret on the front side, usually decorated in someway, the tag line being “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people
mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” (www.postsecret.blogspot.com, 08/11/09). Started by Frank Warren in 2005, it claims to be the biggest, advertisment-free blog in the world and has received 280, 822, 820 visitors at the time of writing. Warren, who has been described as “the most trusted stranger in America”, often opens the talks he regularly gives at colleges across America saying “Everyone has a secret that would break your heart, if only you knew.” Arguably, this could be quite true. However the secrets shared on his site are more often than not extremely sentimental and narcissistic – rather than shocking or indeed heart-breaking.
(Taken from www.postsecret.blogspot.com on 25/04/09)
This secret for example, while possibly being something the artist has never admitted to an acquaintance is hardly a deep, dark secret and its self pitying nature is hardly heart-breaking.
Warren claims to