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Sociologists Examine Web 2.0 101

January 15, 2008
Maryann Lawlor
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The Web 2.0 wave is bringing about a sea change in the way people communicate and gather information. From chief technology officers to teenagers, sociologists are seeing a shift the likes of which have not occurred since the birth of the World Wide Web. But even these educated experts admit that the phenomenon is so young that only cursory analysis can be made at this time. The benefits could be many, but researchers of human behavior warn that they could come with a cost.

David Beer, senior lecturer and head of the Programme for Communication at York St John University, and Prof. Roger Burrows, co-director of the Social Informatics Research Unit in the Department of Sociology at the University of York, both in the United Kingdom, recently explored some of the sociological implications of Web 2.0 and shared their findings, where else, but the Sociological Research Online Web site. In a paper titled “Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0: Some Initial Considerations,” Beer and Burrows describe some of the capabilities that have come to be known as Web 2.0 and discuss the implications of the impact they are already having on society as well as those that may occur in the future.

The two sociologists point out that the newest additions to networking are reworking hierarchies, changing social divisions, creating possibilities and opportunities, informing the public and reconfiguring relationships with objects, spaces and each other. Web 2.0, or what some call the participatory Web, is a complex, ambivalent, dynamic world full of tensions and subversions, and its sociological significance is increasing, they argue.

The extent of participation varies and depends on the specific Web 2.0 capability. For example, Weblogs, or blogs for short, give people the opportunity to e-publish their opinions about a given topic. Podcasts and Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, are ways of sharing knowledge or information. Wikis, named after the Hawaiian term wiki wiki which means quick, are collaborative knowledge environments where users contribute definitions and descriptions. One of the most famous wiki Web sites is Wikipedia, and the intelligence community as well as other agencies have established wiki sites for internal use based on communities of interest. Mashups are the aggregation of content from open information sources that create a new application or service. Folksonomies also facilitate knowledge building by simplifying the search process; Web pages are tagged with metadata labels so users can locate the similar and more targeted information easier.

One of the most interesting Web 2.0 components to sociologists are the social networking sites (SNSs) that open both recreational and professional doors for making new friends or drumming up business. On the recreational side, MySpace and Facebook are the recognized leaders; professionally, many have tapped into LinkedIn to broaden their connections.

Beer and Burrows are fascinated by the changes these sites have brought about in behavior and expectations. For example, while privacy seems to be the buzz word when efforts seem to go over the top to ensure homeland security, few SNS participants seem to worry about who knows what about them. In fact, people are sharing thoughts and describing their daily lives in ways that were once reserved for personal journals and diaries.

To sociologists, these millions of e-entries published so everyone with an Internet connection can read them represent the informational archive of individuals’ everyday lives. And because these Web sites not only provide a platform but also are essentially based on the extensive sharing of personal information, Beer and Burrows point out that serious thought must be given to how this data could be used. While young adults may be thinking in terms of letting their friends know their activities and thoughts, that same information could be used by the commercial sector for targeting sales or by potential employers, many of whom now check an interviewee’s Facebook or MySpace page prior to conducting an interview.

These early observations of sociologists about Web 2.0 activities are sure to intensify as military, government, industry and academic organizations’ adoption of the capabilities grows. Beer and Burrows maintain that as this cultural revolution continues, sociologists themselves will increase their use of Web 2.0 technologies to collect data and improve their methods as well as their refine their observations. The issues Web 2.0 raise cannot be ignored, and they, like all other users, must determine how best to use the new media as well as how it affects their own field, they agree.