Pollution in Web 2.0
You can use the latest toothpaste
And then rinse your mouth
With industrial waste.
-from Tom Lehrer's song “Pollution”
If Web 2.0 is the participatory web, that’s a great thing, right? Not when some participants spoil it for their own selfish benefit. Like people who send spam in email. Web 2.0 has comment spam, for instance. But overall I’m quite impressed with the lack of what I call pollution.
This is no accident. Those of you who’ve been using the Net for more than a few years will remember “newsgroups”. They’re pretty much gone now (my ISP recently stopped carrying them, making arrangements with a third party for customers who still cared). Newsgroups used to be very useful, until the masses got onto the Internet. (Lest anyone think that I’m being elitist, let me point out that I’ve done more than my share toward bringing the masses onto the Internet, something I’m very proud of.) Then the signal-to-noise ratio of newsgroups dropped to the point where the knowledgeable and helpful stuff got lost among all the stuff that wasn’t. Moderated newsgroups didn’t have this problem, but few newsgroups were moderated and the whole space became unpopular.
But the function of newsgroups was still valuable. Web discussion forums had already arisen as an alternative more suitable to unsophisticated users, and far better integrated with websites than newsgroups could ever be. But they tend to have the same problems: most forums are unmoderated, and contain a lot of posts that most readers don’t want to read.
Enter blogs. Blogs have built-in pollution control because only the author(s) can post. (Unmoderated comments may be allowed, but then most people don’t bother reading comments so this doesn’t matter.) No wonder they’re so popular.
But a blog is the voice of only one person (or occasionally a small group), not an open forum. Wikipedia is different because “anyone can edit”. Well, not all pages. Over time the Wikipedia management has found it necessary to tighten up various things. Besides, one must stick to the particular topic of the encyclopedia entry. Doc Searls has written that the Net may not have a real “commons”. And I know why it doesn’t: it’s called “the tragedy of the commons”.
The Web, however, does have ways to make pollution irrelevant: search, filtering, ranking, voting, moderation, reversion in Wikipedia, and other ways for the good stuff to be separated from the bad. Newsgroups did not really have any such mechanism, and went the way of the dodo. Fortunately for Web 2.0, the Web is a more flexible platform and anti-pollution devices can be added wherever needed.