User:Lucia Dossin/Reading Writing Research Methodologies/Assignment 5/Draft

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Created 13:44, 4 December 2013

Observations on Being an User

The Web 2.0 has brought significant changes in the meaning of 'being an User'. When the Internet became accessible on a large scale, in the late 1990's, it was a collection of personal home pages, each one reflecting the website owner's personality. It was a much more diverse and personal environment, if compared to today's web, dominated by corporate culture, where personality is reduced to information that can be entered into a database. Is this process desirable? I am assuming it is not. Is it reversible? If so, how? If not, is it possible to offer some kind of resistance? This brief text's goal is to reflect on concepts that may help answering these questions, in a future project and it's based on notes made after reading Jaron Lanier and Geert Lovink.

Define User Type

We are persons, individuals, subjects. What defines us as such is our creativities, our feelings, our ambiguities. Jaron Lanier, in the first chapter of his book 'You are not a gadget' (2010), gives his answers to the question 'What is a person?'. He believes that 'personhood requires encapsulation' and it is extremely important to take 'time to reflect on ideas, events or things' (p. x – Introduction).

The concept of lock-in is crucial in Lanier's logic. It is the simplification and crystallization of an idea, combined. In scientific method, ideas are discarded after empirical experience proves them to be false. Lock-in, by its turn, 'removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what's fashionable, or what is created by chance. […] It removes ideas that do not fit into the winning digital scheme, but it also reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes, by cutting away the unfathomable penumbra of meaning that distinguishes a word in a natural language from a command in a computer program'. (p.10)

Every design (here also meaning structure, not only looks) represents a choice. And 'it is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering'. (p. 4) It this sense, Web 2.0 'represents freedom for machines, not for people. Despite that, it's seen as “open culture”. ' (p. 3)

Geert Lovink, in 'Networks without a cause' (2011), has a similar perception, but with a slightly different point of view in this case. He describes Web 2.0 as the web's resurrection after the dot-com crash, in March 2000. Around three years later, Silicon Valley startups shifted their focus 'toward a more “participatory culture”, in which users (also called prosumers), and not venture capitalists or bankers, had the final say'. (p. 4)

Web 2.0 has three particular features:
. it is easy to use
. it facilitates sociality
. it provides users with free publishing and production platforms that allow them to upload content in any form (text, video, photos). (G. Lovink, Networks without a cause, p. 5)

Users not only generate content, they also curate it. 'Profiting from (free) user-generated content can be seen as a response to the dot-com crash. […] Companies no longer profit at the level of production, but through the control and distribution channels, and users do not immediately realize how their free labor and online socializing is being monetized by Apple, Amazon, eBay and Google.' (p. 5) To Lovink, 'social is a feature, social is no longer a problem' (p. 6)

In order to be possible to monetize all this social/creative activity, it is necessary to be able to organize and manage these activities on a big scale - in other words, using databases. That's where Lanier and Lovink are speaking about the same event: the necessary reduction and simplification of human subjectivities in order to make them fit into a database so that this data is manageable and sellable.

Define User ID

Another important topic in Web 2.0 environment is identity. According to Oxford's Dictionary, identity refers both to something that distinguishes one person from another, as to similarities within a group of individuals. Lanier believes that the way that the internet is designed 'tends to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as individuals', as if we were slowly transforming ourselves into collaborative units of a collective brain. (p. x, introduction) Lovink argues that the world is not becoming more virtual. Instead, it is becoming more real. We are required to 'be ourselves' all the time. We share, publish, tweet and post everything we do, think and like. Through our online ID credential, our identity is connected in both the virtual and real worlds.

It might seem, at first sight, that their positions differ, but they are actually, again, talking about the same thing (using different names for it, though). Both authors distinguish two instances of the 'self', one that is our private self (anonymous for Lovink, inner for Lanier) and another that is our public self (the one using our real names for Lovink, the one being reduced for Lanier). Lanier claims that 'personhood requires encapsulation. You have to find a way to be yourself before you can share yourself.' (You are not a gadget, 2010, p. ix introduction) When every one of us is not only required but expected to react, comment, post, tweet, share our 'content' through and to interfaces that were designed to give work well with databases (instead of being prioritarily designed to stimulate our self-expression), we are publishing a simplified fragment of ourselves. That (simplification) is what makes us 'anonymous' to Lanier, even though all this activity is being logged under our real names (which is what makes us 'not anonymous' to Lovink).

The web pre 2.0, an environment dominated by personal homepages, each one being radically different from each other (the 'web with flavor'), showed to be working 'rather well without a business plan'. (Lanier, You are not a gadget, 2010, p. 15) Even when 'Google came along with the idea of linking advertising and searching', that had only indirect effects. It was only when Google's next idea started to be implemented that things began to change. This idea consists of digitally representing people so that they can be matched to ads.

The digital representation of a person implies a gigantic amount of reduction and simplification. Not only to make this representation possible and valid, but also because it causes us to behave like a simplified digital representation. From the design of a Facebook profile and expected (or possible) interactions to the key concepts of web usability (which are in the foundations of Apple's design nowadays, for example), we, users, are treated as rudimentary units, possessors of binary minds. Ambiguity is out of question.

Define User Role

The financial crisis in 2001 and the 9/11 attacks put an end on the 'desire for a serious “parallel second self” culture and instead gave rise to a global surveillance and control industry. […] To this assault on freedom, Web 2.0 tactically responded with coherent, singular identities in sync with the data owned by police, security and financial institutions. Thanks to this ideology of “trust” that offers “walled gardens” and online walls safe for e-commerce, cheap, centralized cloud computing makes it possible to […] have a place of filtered retreat where ordinary users can meet their friends and be protected from the wild, anarchic web with its viruses, spam and online fraud.'(Lovink, Networks without a cause, 2011, p. 40)

Since the rise of the blogosphere in 2003/2004, the internet is a space of self-promotion. With the advent of social media, identity management has become 'a collective obsession' (Lovink, p. 38) The Web 2.0 is currently a corporative world, a global business network where professional and private coincide, superposing each other. 'In the competitive networking context of work, we are trained to present ourselves as the best, fastest and smartest'. (p. 42)

Prior to Web 2.0, links were a valuable resource. They still are, if you consider the attention they deserve by content managers when trying to build a good Search Engine rank for their websites (a 'parasitic attitude towards links' – p. 16). But in the past, they were actually used by 'internauts' to 'surf the web'. The importance previously given to links now reside on likes. 'The move from Link to Like as the dominant web currency symbolizes the shift in the attention economy from search-driven navigation to self-referential or gated dwelling in social media.' (p. 17)


There have been significant changes in the role of 'being an user' in the last ten or fifteen years. These changes have a huge impact on our subjectivities and on our society. Besides the books mentioned in this text, several studies have been made pointing out some degree of discomfort with this set up, which seems to be reducing not only our ability to express ourselves but also what there is to be expressed. One of the doors through which these changes are performed is the interface. Consolidated usability guidelines, with emphasis on 'user friendliness', for example, can be interesting material to be investigated.


Lanier, J (2010) You are not a gadget, Penguin Books
Lovink, G (2011) Networks without a cause, Poliqty Books