The Web 2.0 monoculture
As I began this post at the end of October (yes, I’ve been meaning to finish it for a little while) I checked for who else had written about this. It turned out that this was actually a pretty current topic and I was behind on my blog-reading, e.g. on October 16 Anil Dash posted Life or Death for Web 2.0, which I highly recommend to gain some understanding of the problem.
In his post, Dash refers to an article in that day’s Washington Post by Shankar Vedantam, Why Everyone You Know Thinks the Same as You, a scary article for those of us who are used to thinking of the Internet as a positive force for connecting people. Scary but I highly recommend reading it too (it isn’t long).
What do these names have in common: Anil Dash, Shankar Vedantam, Rohan Jayasekera? They’re all South Asian (Dash and I were born and raised in North America, while Vedantam moved from India to the USA in his early 20s). Perhaps there is something worth looking into here: are those of us who are North American, yet strongly influenced by a different cultural background, either more sensitive to or more inclined to be concerned about a perceived lack of thought diversity?
Note that I said “thought diversity”. Others have already expressed their concern about, in particular, a lack of diversity in ethnicity and gender. Sure, that’s an issue, but I think that will work itself out over time. Other types of insularity exist too, though, and get less recognition.
I co-founded Sympatico (Canada's largest ISP), which as far as I know was the world's first mass-market Internet service. One of our portal content people remarked to me one day that she was hoping for more diversity among us. I agreed, but we were thinking different things. She wanted people with physical disabilities, aboriginal people, etc. I wanted right-wingers.
Our group was pretty lefty, and this was not representative of the population we were serving. I recall being horrified when, long ago, I tried out Yahoo’s chatrooms and discovered that they were largely occupied by “trailer trash”. But if that’s the real population, let’s do our best to serve it.
Later I happened to hire someone who didn’t come from that lefty thoughtplace and in fact wore a mullet. Of course I hired him purely because he was really good, but getting more thought diversity was a very nice bonus as far as I was concerned.
Let’s talk about Apple. A lot of people in the 2.0 world love Apple and its products, and regard Microsoft with suspicion if not outright hatred. These same people profess to love open source and dislike monopolies — yet they ignore Apple’s closed-architecture approach with the Macintosh and the iPod, which may well have a lot to do with Apple’s success. As I see it, Apple is far more monopolistic than Microsoft is these days. Is it such a good thing that the Web 2.0 community is so Mac-heavy when this is so unrepresentative of the Internet-using population?
Then there’s age. I’m over 40 and in the Toronto geek community that means I’m a foreigner. (When I was a kid I would never have predicted that my skin colour would cease to be a problem and my age would become one.) I think there are two reasons: others think they can’t relate to me because I’m weird (they don’t know anyone else like me), and because this is a tech community they assume that I’m out of date (ironic given that they’re now rediscovering things from the 1970s, as I wrote earlier).
Music? Apparently the best musicians all have names starting with “DJ”. So much for originality in names, let alone content (if you remix something that someone else did, in the 2.0 world you somehow get more kudos than the original artist).
Back to Anil Dash, Shankar Vedantam and me. It seems that we have a shared inclination to spread things to the general population, which I don’t think is the case among most Web 2.0 people, who want to spread things to each other. I take great pride in having helped spread the Internet to the masses in Canada (and having set an example for similarly-minded people in other countries). Dash encourages the masses to use spreadsheets for all kinds of things, as he does. Vedantam says that “I moved into science journalism because it seemed like a very neat way to capitalize on knowledge that I already had. In modern culture there is a huge knowledge base, but we haven’t spread that knowledge very well. I feel that spreading it may be as important as generating it or acquiring it.”
So if you believe that Web 2.0 has monocultural problems, do your best to diversify its population — and not just in ethnicity and gender. Start by not thumbing your nose at anyone who uses Microsoft Windows, votes Republican/Conservative/equivalent, is over 40, or likes to listen to Shakira.