Monday, 11 January 2010

Everyone is an Expert Now...

1: The Death of the Professional & the Forming of New Identities.

As mentioned above, Web 2.0 does not represent a change in technology, merely a change in the behaviour of the Internet’s users and developers, which lead to the emergence of user-generated content sites. These websites require some form of input from the audience to make up a portion of their substance.

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 of 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.)

Taken from (01/11/09)

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 greater 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 its power to create protest and “mobs”, this wasn’t necessarily 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 (RT stands for “ReTweet” where one account holder reposts the Tweet of another, at marks it with “RT” to show this). 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 opposed 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 of professional 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 is so often not) – he has no real knowledge of what it is to practise professional journalism. Usually this information will be at least second hand, or mere opinion, rather than the more reliable first hand experience that a journalist has the resources to find. In his book The Cult of the Amateur (2007) – 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.” (2007: p.16)

He also warns that this model of media breaks the world into “a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile” (2007: p.17).

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 documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), mocking its 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.

Many commentators claim that the Internet is having a detrimental effect on society. The tagline of Keen’s book reads:

“How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy” (2007)

As mentioned above, Keen’s work focuses particularly on the opportunity Web 2.0 gives its users to consider themselves, and be considered as experts or professionals, and to feed their egos. Keen appeared on the BBC4 show It’s Only A Theory (BBC4, 17/11/2009) arguing his theory that “User generated media is killing our culture and economy” – and specified that he is focusing his attention on sites such as Facebook and YouTube. His theory stated that our society is suffering and that the Internet has become merely “a platform for our feelings”, suggesting that we had a great opportunity in the Internet, but we have wasted it on Web 2.0 interaction. As an example he asked the panelists to imagine that they selected members of the audience and asked them to produce the show – “it would be a farce” quipped Keen. His argument followed that there are two main problems with the Internet – that it is a technology which allows us to express ourselves freely, without thought or with prior knowledge of a subject, and secondly that we are consuming less mainstream media such as newspapers and television, which tends to come from an informed perspective.

If it was discovered that an article, in a national newspaper, posing as a researched piece, was written by a naïve member of the public, speaking only from their own opinions and hearsay, there would be public outcry and the paper would have to publish an apology or an explanation. Writing in his book Here Comes Everybody (2008), Clay Shirky, talks about the publishing and journalistic worlds of the past,

“…we have a professional class of truth-tellers who are given certain latitude to avoid co-operating with the law. We didn’t have to worry, in defining those privileges, that they would somehow become general, because it wasn’t like just anyone could become a publisher.” (2008: p.71)

Shirky then admits that, in the current version of the Internet, anyone can become a publisher. Viewers are (generally) aware that the majority of blogs, YouTube channels, Wikipedia and Twitter feeds are run and updated by amateurs (of course, professional journalists, scientists etc also update and maintain information on these sites, but are a minority compared to the overall population of the Internet). However most still demonstrate an instinctive trust in these sources. We know that sites such as Wikipedia are written and moderated by amateurs but most would admit that it is their first port of call in understanding a subject. The word “wiki” is Hawaiian for “fast”, but has become a meme on the Internet for a collective knowledge. Rather than a factually accurate account of the subject, Wikipedia gives a quick snapshot of it, in a language understandable by the average citizen, even if it is not very academic. Traditionally, we are taught from the moment we begin to read that most written media – textbooks, newspapers, non-fiction books, journals – are intrinsically correct. Of course, free-thinking is encouraged, but the sense that the author knows their subject well, and thus has an elevated status above us, always lingers. It may be the transfer of these paper-based skills to the relatively new platform of the Internet, which causes users to trust online sources.

When one uses the Internet, a strange thing is happening. With face-to-face interaction, and even with a phone call 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.

Anti-virus software and data protection firm, Sophos, conducted a probe into identity theft via Facebook (published on 07/12/09). In their investigation they created two Facebook profiles, both with names based on anagrams of the words “false identity”. “Daisy Felettin”, 21, displayed a picture of a rubber duck as her profile picture. “Dinette Stonily”, 56, was represented by two cats lying on a rug. Facebook users were randomly chosen in their respective age-groups and 100 friend requests were sent out to each profile. Within two weeks, 95 users had accepted the friend requests from these false profiles. This proved to be an even higher rate than when the experiment was first done two years previously with a plastic frog. Eight users added Dinette without being asked. Of those who befriended the profiles 89% of the 20-somethings and 57% of the 50-somethings gave away their full date of birth. On top of this, just under half of the 20-somethings and just under a third of the 50-somethings gave out personal information about their friends and family. Paul Ducklin, Head of Technology at Sophos’ Sydney offices, who conducted the study said,

“Our honeymoon period with social networking sites ought to be over by now – but many users still have a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude to their personal data.”




Friends accepting



Total friends gained



Full d.o.b. (D/M/Y)



Partial d.o.b. (D/M)



Email address



College or workplace



Town or suburb



Full address



Phone number



IM screen name



Family and friend data



Average no. of friends



So why do people readily accept complete strangers as friends on the Internet? The design and concept of social networking sites tends to be inherently narcissistic. Users are usually represented by photographs of themselves, there is often a ‘status feed’ where they can update thoughts, feelings or activities, and they are asked to list their hobbies and interests. There are reams of applications to show how well travelled you are, to test your knowledge of popular culture or to test your IQ. Less of a communication tool, social networking often acts as an advert. There is a pressure to prove how cool, how funny, pretty or intelligent you are and of course, how many friends you have.

On top of this, the amount of information people are giving freely is alarming, a perfect hotbed for identity theft. Many social network users are sharing all of this data with criminals, who themselves are only traceable through their IP address – and even that can be concealed with free software such as Tor (ironically Tor describe themselves as “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known traffic analysis.”)

Hopefully in the coming years this trend of sharing too much information will stop. To make this happen, user-generated content sites will have to change their formats to some extent in an effort to protect the identities of their users. Currently people are positively encouraged to tell all, but there is a pressing need for the format of these sites to mature.

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