When Infopeople and its wonderful instructors introduced many of us to Web 2.0 through a magnificent series of workshops underwritten by the California State Library last year, we couldn’t have imagined what a difference it was going to make in how we viewed and interacted with the world. Those of us who had not explored any of the online social networking tools and services at all, read or written for blogs, or done anything beyond giggling over how silly the word “Wikipedia” sounded in comparison to the names of the solid and respectable encyclopedias we still admired— even if we rarely opened them—were in for a big surprise.
Looking now at the massive transition we have made as a result of our acquaintance with and use of Web 2.0 tools, we have to acknowledge what a difference a year or two of experience can make.
Absorbing several news and journal articles this week for a graduate-level online course I am taking through the University of North Texas, I was struck by how quaint some of those articles written about the Internet not so long ago felt. Pieces like Benjamin Barber’s “The Uncertainty of Digital Politics” from the Spring 2001 issue of the Harvard International Review, and “The Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?” from the September 1998 issue of American Psychologist—both written before Web 2.0 tools began to be widely documented and promoted—warn that Internet use might divide rather than unite people and that it runs the risk of destroying rather than creating communities. Barber’s suggestion that “students are increasingly ignoring social life, community, and school activities in favor of time alone on the computer” (pp. 44-45 in the original publication) has been somewhat overtaken by students’ use—our use—of Internet access to a variety of information sources (including libraries); social and professional networking tools (including LinkedIn); and services such as Skype which combine computer time with social and academic life. The political divisiveness which he was seeing in 2001 certainly is far from gone, but the two most recent presidential campaigns demonstrate how candidates, their advisors, and their supporters united through efforts such as MoveOn.org have learned to use Web 2.0 tools to do everything from creating online and face-to-face communities to encouraging political involvement and donations from large numbers of previously unengaged voters.
Barber’s prediction that “we will have to start not with technology but with politics” if “democracy is to benefit from technology” (p. 47) is closer to fruition just a few years after Web 2.0 tools began spreading as a means for communication and community-building. His fear that “many of our problems today arise from the fact that we no longer know how to talk to neighbors, to husbands, to wives, and to fellow citizens” seems to have missed the mark in the sense that the existence or nonexistence of online communication is not going to increase or resolve the problem: these problems are resolved or exacerbated, as he concludes, through our own efforts to confront them (p. 47), and those of us working in or with libraries are in a great position to help the members of our extended community learn better how to use these online tools to their—and our—advantage.
Categories: Web 2.0