Tag Archives: web 2.0

user agency on the web

WordPress “masks the database and creates a continuous blogging experience within the browser” (Helmond in Reader, p. 180), yet the database is rigidly defined and categorised. Discuss how this shapes the way we interact with the World Wide Web through blogging and how it affects user agency.

What lies behind that Times New Roman 'W'?

Anne Helmond discusses the relationship between users and the mediums that they ‘engage’ with. In this subject, we have established the characteristics of Web 2.0, or more specifically in this case, blogging. ‘Interactivity’ is routinely cited as an essential component of Web 2.0 and blogging. Indeed, we must engage with the medium for it to be considered a part of the ‘new media’ category.

A core element of this subject is the blog project. Through blogging, we are given first hand experience at using the tools of Web 2.0 and interacting and engaging with net communication applications – to facilitate this, we use: WordPress.

Helmond (2007) proposes that in spite of the rhetoric of Web 2.0 and interactivity and customisation, our supposedly limitless user agency is in fact quite limited by the database foundations of WordPress and other similar blogging websites.

The interface presented to users in their browser windows “masks the database” to create a fluid and seamless “blogging experience” for the user(/blogger) (Helmond 2007)

Hosted by servers and managed by software, databases are used to store information. As the name suggests, ‘data’ is ‘based’ in a single location, resulting in the efficient ‘storage’ of information. But databases cannot be interpreted or manipulated by the untrained eye. It requires particular technical expertise to be able to edit and control a database without the assistance of an interface. For this reason, a graphical interface is employed to help ‘bridge the gap’ between database-illiterate ‘users’ and the database. Helmond delves into a technical explanation of the various internet protocols and coding languages that are used to store information in the most efficient manner within digital databases.

The question raised by Helmond’s article is this: if we are interacting with an interface (such as the one of WordPress), are we really engaging with the medium at all? Is our user agency limited by our technological-illiteracy?

Although these are valid questions, blogging websites like WordPress and Blogger are not about facilitating an intimate relationship between the user and the database. They focus on the relationship between users and other users: they create a clean and clear interface that “masks” the complexity of the database that lies beneath.

When we post on WordPress, we are entering information (or raw data) into a database. The information of this database is hosted by a ‘server’, managed by ‘software’ and reproduced on personal computers and mobile devices with the ‘browser’. But posting on WordPress is more than just the technical side of things. Posting on WordPress is about encouraging free expression, in text and in visual form; it’s about engaging with your fellow WordPress peers on the other side of the world, and; it’s about being a part of community which today alone has ‘freshly pressed’ 107,034,473 words.

One problem that I encountered with Helmond’s article was the sense of techno-elitism that it promoted. Part of her article seems to suggest a quasi-class divide along the lines of technical expertise between “those who know” and “those who don’t”. In suggesting such a divide Helmond undermines the meaning of WordPress and the internet at large. The internet is about a freedom to network, to communicate and with Web 2.0, a freedom to interact. Moreover, the internet introduced a crucial change to the media landscape that preceded it: the internet put the means of production and distribution in the hands of many, not just the hands of the elite. As Helmond alludes to a divide between technical experts and the technically-illiterate, she simultaneously resurrects the very media landscape that the advent of the internet sought to quash.

“Masking the database” connotes an insidious and deceptive act, but it isn’t a bad thing. “The job of computers and networks is to get out of the way, to not be seen… so we can interact with it intuitively” (Berners-Lee in Helmond 2007). Tim Berners-Lee is right, it’s just important to consider and acknowledge that something more happens ‘behind the scenes’.

//nickkotzman.

Sources:

  • Helmond, A., ‘Software-Engine Relations’ in Blogging for Engines: Blogs Under the Influence of Software-Engine Relations, MA Thesis, Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, pp. 44-80, 2007.
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online ‘communities’

While discussing YouTube, José van Dijck argues that the site’s interface influences the popularity of videos through ranking tactics that promote popular favourites (Reader, page 94). How do ranking tactics impact on the formation online ‘communities’?

‘Our’Tube?

YouTube recently launched a vote-based competition, where members of “the YouTube community” could vote for their favourite video-producing artists. By way of majority, the results of the competition reflected each artists’ popularity amongst YouTubers. The community-based competition was appropriately titled “myYouTube”.

This latest community development by the administrators and owners of YouTube supports the argument proposed in van Dijck’s ‘Users like You? Theorizing Agency in User-Generated Content’. In her article, van Dijck (2009) challenges the perception of YouTube as a website that fosters a “participatory culture”, and proposes that instead, the administrators and owners of YouTube have attempted to create an online “community” using hidden software algorithms. Van Dijck (2009) asserts that although users are valuable “creators and arbiters of media content”, there has been little attention paid to the role that a website’s platform (and interface) performs in corralling these users into virtual “communities”. Van Dijck (2009) argues that concealed “algorithms” are used to “steer” the mass of users to particular videos, and specified “trends”, to help build and develop online “communities” that users can feel comfortable to share and discuss each others uploads.

YouTube’s “ranking tactics” inherent in the “top favourites”, “most viewed” and “most discussed” lists that lie within YouTube’s interface, play an important role in the formation of “online communities”. Lists such as these provide new and existing users with immediate access to the core of the YouTube “community” (Geisler 2007: Dijck 2009). When new users can easily identify the popular videos or current trends, they are given immediate access to the heart of the YouTube “community”. Through ranking “tactics”, users are steered in the direction of the majority, and as a consequence, feel included and a part of a YouTube culture or “community” that encourages the open sharing of information, ideas and most especially, video content (Geisler 2007: van Dijck 2009).

With “ranking tactics” creating something of a snowball effect in the online landscape (where the bigger, more popular videos become increasingly popular as their ‘relevance’ in search results increases), van Dijck (2009) questions whether “participating” in YouTube is really “participation” at all. If users routinely follow the trends of others (and are encouraged to via the site’s ‘trend’ and ‘most viewed’ interface elements), then the degree to which users are actually participating in the online community is seriously diminished (van Dijck 2009). Indeed, their agency over the website and the YouTube community is stifled by the website’s interface.

YouTube’s “myYouTube” feature is exemplifies both of van Dijck’s arguments. First, by encouraging users to “vote” for their favourite video artists, users are made a part of a virtual democracy that through the power of the majority can define which video artists are popular (and thus, superior). This in turn makes users feel a part of a Youtube “community”, encouraging the open sharing of information, ideas and videos. Second (and almost paradoxically), in creating an “online community” that revolves around what is popular or what is trending, the true participation of individual users is limited; instead of participating in the YouTube “community” as they please, they are encouraged to follow the pack and submit to the tyranny of the majority.

Tertiary to this lecture question, it would have been appropriate for van Dijck to further explain and develop her argument behind the economic value of online “communities”. We know that YouTube was purchased by Google for $1.65 billion – but Google were not buying the technology of YouTube’s software – Google were investing in the productivity of YouTube’s online community and essentially “buying the users” from YouTube’s URL… a “commodity” of sorts that YouTube never owned in the first place. To me, this seemed as though an appropriate avenue for elaboration.

It would have also been welcome for van Dijck to have discussed the importance of “Featured” videos in the YouTube system and interface. I think that the “promotion” of particular videos on YouTube invites an interesting discussion about equality and fairness on YouTube and the internet in general – YouTube claims that it’s “community belongs to [us]”, but clearly some users are more equal than others.

//nickkotzman.

Sources:

  • Van Dijck, J., ‘Users like you?’, Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 41-58, 2009.
  • Geisler, G., ‘Tagging Video: Conventions and Strategies of the YouTube Community’, 2007.
  • Pauwels, L., ‘Strategic and tactical uses of internet design and infrastructure: the case of YouTube’, Journal of Visual Literacy Spring, Vol 28, No. 1, pp. 51-70, 2009.
  • Jenkins, H., ‘Enabling Participation’ in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part 1), October 2006.

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web 2.0 in education

Hello again!

I wanted to share this short lecture that I came across when I was having a look at one of my favourite websites, TED.

I also though it’d be an excellent opportunity to show off some embedding skillz. But in all honesty, TED makes the task of embedding terribly easy. Just a few clicks here and there, and a small ‘ted id’ can be copied from the TED website, and pasted into a WordPress blog. And then wham… you’ve embedded a video! Huzzah!

The TED lecture shows the creative use of Web 2.0 applications in education. The system teaches a subject by way of progression and achievement. This is of course quite similar to standard teaching in the classroom, but this system can be operated from the home computer, and most importantly, it gives prospective students a visual display of their learning objectives.

So, for example, in primary maths, you might follow a learning tree progression like this:

  • Basic Arithmetic 1
  • Basic Arithmetic 2
  • Basic Arithmetic 3
  • Finishing the third arithmetic would open up new classes/lessons in ‘Long Division 1’ or ‘Advanced Muliplication’, for example.

In this way, it ensures students have understood the basic lessons of the previous class before progression to the next ‘level’/class.

The other part of this lecture describes that with this system, class time (with the teacher) can be used for the ‘homework’ part of standard education – it is in this time that students run into the most trouble, and with a teacher on call, these issues can be quickly resolved.

Anyway, just an interesting application of Web 2.0 features in an area that can always be improved: education.

//nickkotzman.

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welcome, wordpress and web 2.0

First of all, welcome!

It is here within the hallowed halls of WordPress that I shall make my mark in Net Communications for 2011.

I’m really quite excited about this subject. I think it’s great the University has committed itself to a proper subject that examines the ‘Net’ aspect of media and communications. This ‘Net’ aspect, as I am sure we are all aware, it becoming increasingly relevant as we March through the beginnings of the 21st century.

Like me, many of my fellow peers are doing this subject as part of their undergraduate degree in Arts (Media and Communications). In many ways, I think we are all studying this course at a crucial time in the timeline of the media industry. For many years, the media industry has been that of a known quantity – journalists and public relations officers knew the score:

“We’ve got newspapers, radio, billboards and television”, said the ambitious pre-internet media student, “and we know them all bloody well!”

But oh wait… what’s this… Tim Berners-Lee…? What are you talking about?

The history and origins of the internet are complicated enough, and frankly, far too technical for me to discuss in this forum, but after its first proposal by Berners-Lee (TimBL, as he likes to be called) in 1989, this new-fangled ‘World Wide Web’ took off with great enthusiasm.

In recent years, however, the internet has seen somewhat of a transformation: the rise of a new style of website, a website where individual users could manipulate and decide how they wanted to view the page, and what they wanted to view on the webpage.

These new websites were dubbed as examples of ‘Web 2.0’.

The name is credited to Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and advocate for the open source software movement, who discussed this new ‘trend’ of internet sites at his O’Reilly Media Web 2.0 conference in late 2004.

Web 2.0, despite the name, did not indicate an actual firmware update to ‘the internet’, rather, it denotes a trend in website design that facilitates the power and control of the user, rather than the historically-traditional user-subjugation by the dominant-host of the website.

Web 2.0 is in fact an umbrella term that refers to a number of characteristics or features of websites or ‘online software’.

  • Participation
  • Usability
  • Convergence
  • Mobility
  • Remixability
  • Economy
  • The Long Tail
  • Simplicity
  • Social Software
  • Blogs
  • Wikis
  • RSS (Really Simple Syntax)
  • Pay Per Click
  • Collaboration

In my debut performance on WordPress software, I will discuss a number of these features and examine an succinct definition of Web 2.0.

Specifically, I will address the design patterns evident in WordPress that categorise or define it as a Web 2.0 application.

1. The Long Tail

  • The ability for individuals to develop their own content in line with their own interests. By providing an easy-to-use framework for developing websites, WordPress can host a wide range of ideas, opinions and data.

2. Critical Mass

  • Through allowing users to post and create their own content for free, WordPress attracts a critical mass. This mass draws more users, and a competitive advantage is established.

3. Interactivity

  • A hallmark of web 2.0 platforms, WordPress allows and encourages its users to surf and comment on other users’ content (or blogs).

The above are features of WordPress that clearly define it as a Web 2.0 application.

In my further research to try and find a better and clearer definition of what Web 2.0 entailed, I stumbled across this gem from Andrew McAfee.

McAfee has devised a pithy acronym (SLATES) that labels the key design patterns that feature in many Web 2.0 applications. As a typical example of Web 2.0 software, WordPress exemplifies most of the below.

SEARCH – LINKS – AUTHORSHIP – TAGS – EXTENSIONS – SIGNALING

SLATES

  • Search – providing the option for users and non-users to submit a ‘web query’, WordPress allows its visitors to search for specific content (ie. blogs) that they are interested in.
  • Links – featured in most (if not all uses of the internet), links to other webpages (and other content) is permitted and fostered on WordPress.
  • Authorship – touching on the first (The Long Tail), authorship of content allows users to feel that their blog is personal, and can reflect interests, tastes and desires.
  • Tags – content can be ‘tagged’ by topic, author or any other categorising label; archives of these ‘tags’ can be stored and viewed by other users.
  • Extensions – not featured in WordPress (think, Amazon’s ‘if you liked this book, have a look at these…’)
  • Signaling – adapting signaling mechanisms such as RSS, users can ‘subscribe’ to a feed of a blog, alerting them to any new content or changes of existing content on any blog to which they are subscribed.

And that’s all, folks! Thank you for reading my first blog post! I look forward to regularly updating this blog as the semester wears on. I think with regular posts, this blog will end up as an excellent record of my experiences in the subject and a log of what I’ve learnt along the way.

//nickkotzman.

Sources:

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