The interactive Internet, coined “Web 2.0” largely as a marketing term by businesses and media pundits in the mid-2000s, takes the passive medium of the Internet (passive for the majority of users without IT departments, servers, graphic designers, etc.) and turns it on its head. Wikis, blogs, instant messaging, and mail lists are just a few of the tools that are empowering users of all abilities to have two-way conversations with audiences across the globe.
Tim O’Reilly, one of the first to evangelize the concept of Web 2.0, reflected at the start of the trend that the key lesson of the technology is that “users add value” (2005). Ian Davis, in his Internet Alchemy blog, asserts, “Web 2.0 is an attitude not a technology” that enables participation not only on open software, but also in an open society (Lin, 2007).
In their book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Tapscott & Williams (2006) explain that with a computer, an Internet connection, and a “bright spark of initiative and creativity,” anyone can participate in a community’s collective intelligence (p. 12).
Capturing the “collective intelligence” of PPR management, employees, neighbors, and the greater Portland community to direct a long-term vision for Mt. Tabor is what brought about the planning group, mirroring the intention behind Web 2.0. Quiggin (2006) argues, however, that rather than replace existing collaborative tools, the interactive Internet offers a new mode of innovation. Introducing, and embracing, Web 2.0 tools should not supersede the process already set in motion by the planning group, but it could be used to enhance collaboration.
Before the invention of the World-Wide-Web, the only tool available that had any real effect on the way people talked in a group setting was the table (Shirky, 2003). This has always been, and will continue to be, an effective tool, but one that is limiting when the table has to accommodate dozens, hundreds, and thousands of people. This is especially true when those same people are under an intense timeline to get something produced. Researching collaborative efforts between government and citizens, I found that the greater the number of participants, the more successful the parties involved perceived the endeavor. Though I agree that a key benchmark of success should be how many people participated, as I am extremely proud that the MTCY&NPG has maintained a core group of 40 members, once those numbers exceed how many people can sit around a table, how true is the collaboration?
It is important to note, however, that true collaboration over the Internet isn’t as easy making the tools available. In its infancy, Web 2.0 has more misses than hits, and those successes are considered special cases rather than standards. Shirky (2008, May) likens Internet participation to the physics of weather rather than the physics of gravity:
We know all the forces that combine to make these kinds of things work: there’s an interesting community over here, there’s an interesting sharing model over there, those people are collaborating on open source software. But despite knowing the inputs, we can’t predict the outputs yet because there’s so much complexity. The way you explore complex ecosystems is you just try lots and lots and lots of things, and you hope that everybody who fails, fails informatively.
Much can be learned from the attempt, and subsequent failure, of the planning group’s introduction to Web 2.0 through the use of the Wiki, such as incorporating education into the initiation of new technologies. Going beyond the teaching of fundamentals, however, is key to integrating the “attitude” of Web 2.0, even for the most tech-savvy users.
There is very little published literature on community engagement and technology. Leighninger (2006) sites case study after case study across America on how communities are working with local authorities to collaborate on policy, but very few engage technology. Only a handful of organizations have used the Internet extensively, but that use has been limited to online polling and areas to post comments. To understand how and why Web 2.0 is shifting the paradigm of collaboration, it’s important to look at success stories from a variety of different fields.
The quintessential success story of online collaboration is Linux, the open-source software available free to everyone around the world. In 1991, Linus Torvalds created a simple version of the Unix operating system and posted it onto an online bulletin board for review and modification by other programmers. After receiving substantial feedback, Torvalds licensed the operating system under a general public license. This allowed everyone the ability to use and change the software to fit their needs, with the stipulation that any updates be made available to all (Tapscott & Williams, 2006).
Richard Stallman, the founder of Linux, left the proprietary, top-down control software world because he found that “the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made the owners of proprietary software was, ‘If you share with your neighbor, you’re a pirate” (Lappe, 2007, p. 55).
Today, corporations such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Novell, Oracle Corporation, Red Hat, and Sun Microsystems support Linux and is used as an operating system for a variety of computer hardware, such as desktop computers, supercomputers, video game systems, mobile phones and routers (Wikipedia, n.d.)
Robert Stephens, founder of Geed Squad, created a niche market when he formed a company based on a quirky band of computer technicians that make house calls to fix computer problems. The idea itself was innovative, but what helped Stephens expand his market and grow his business was to empower his “geeks” to be innovative, and forward their knowledge to the rest of the company. Knowing that his employees had daily contact with customers, Stephens understood that to capture what the market needed, he would have to have real time data from the “front-lines.” Doing so, the company grew to 60 employees and $3 million in annual revenue in 2002 before being acquired by Best Buy, where it now has 12,000 service agents and adds nearly $1 billion in services for the company (Tapscott & Williams, 2006).
To capture innovation and creativity, Stephens offered unorthodox collaboration technologies to his employees. Wikis, blogs, and even multi-player video games help keep all employees in the loop. Yes, video games.
Worrying about keeping his new offices connected to Geek Squad’s mission as the company grew to 12,000 employees, Stephens spent considerable time building a sophisticated internal Wiki. He found, however, that his techies weren’t using it. Perplexed, he inquired with his managers about how they were staying informed, and after some coaxing, realized that employees were talking to each other while playing role-playing games online. Employees were obviously taking advantage of Geek Squad’s fun and relaxed workplace to blow off steam, but the affect was that they were communicating about work at the same time. Reflecting on the process, Stephens was enlightened:
“I’m sitting here trying to build this shiny playground with all these tools for collaboration and I failed to notice what the agents were already doing. While I had my head down doing this in preparation to open the Wiki’s floodgates, the agents had self-organized online in probably the most effective and efficient collaborative tool that’s already out there. Instead of trying to set an agenda, I’m now going to try and discover their agenda, and serve it” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006, p. 243).
Now the largest encyclopedia in the world and offered for free online, as of April 2008 Wikipedia offers 10 million articles to 683 million visitors a year in 253 languages, and is run entirely by volunteers (Wikipedia, n.d.). Multiple users, of which nearly 75,000 are labeled Wikipedians – or active participants – create and edit the same web page with the premise that collaboration among users will improve content over time.
Founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger originally as Nupedia in 1998, the effort of posting encyclopedic content online barely got off of the ground. Nupedia allowed anyone to collaborate online, but unlike Wikipedia, decision-making on accepted content came from a centralized, top-down hierarchy. Paid academics and topic experts followed an extensive seven-step review process to approve submissions. One year and $120,000 into the project, however, it closed its doors after publishing only 24 articles (Tapscott & Williams, 2006). After being introduced to Wiki technology by an employee, the idea was resurrected in a much more open way. Wikipedia did away with the extensive review process, and within the first month published 200 articles. In the first year, the total climbed to 18,000.
The surge in interest from users was in part because the barriers of a formal peer-review process were done away with and changes were available immediately. This openness has led to criticism that the information should not be trusted. Though Wikipedians attest to their vast numbers and “watch-dog attitude” as reasons that discourage vandalism and erroneous information, the platform has gone through growing pains.
In May 2005, an anonymous user created a fictional biography on USA Today editorial director John Seigenthaler, Sr. that read, “John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother Bobby. Nothing was ever proven” (Tapscott & Williams, 2006).
Academics argue that incidental vandalism such as this, as well as uneven quality, undermines Wikipedia’s authority as a scholarly resource and discourage its use as a reference tool. Unfavorable comparisons to “scholarly” resources, however, may have little basis in fact. In a head-to-head study of online encyclopedias, Nature magazine compared 42 science entries on both Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia. The comparisons showed only a small difference, with Wikipedia containing four discrepancies to Britannica’s three (Giles, 2005). Britannica disputed the comparison, claiming that Wikipedia’s errors were more serious than their own, but their complaints really miss the point – that Wikipedia errors have long been fixed, whereas Encyclopedia Britannica’s errors remain.
The case of Encyclopedia Britannica vs. Wikipedia highlights the paradigm of this new technology and echoes Shirky’s thoughts that we don’t really know the details of how online participation works. These examples underline the potential of Web 2.0, however, and given enough time and experimentation, the technology opens a world of potential.