Web2.0 is grassroots

This article just serves as an introduction to web2.0 for the grassroots people. So this article is by no means academic. I will try to avoid tech terms.

Web2.0 is grassroots in the sense that if you look at web2.0 websites (meetup, craigslist, youtube, flickr, del.icio.us …), they are all built by the user. It is the user who created those groups and activities on meetup.com website, put the ads on craigslist, and videos and photos on youtube and flickr and tagged them with their own tags. And a good web2.0 company constantly gets feedback from the user to incorporate into the next release of the website/software. So it is the user who builds the software. They help the techies to figure out how to build software in a specific social domain by their participation.

So each successful web2.0 website is to just look at the core values of each specific social domain, and figure out how to connect people together, come up with a way to bring in user participation, and use computer science to work behind the scene to turn user participation into user cooperation and thus provide a service in that domain.

For example if we look at music industry, the core value here is musicians expressing themselves with music, and the listeners get the nutrition of life or entertainment through the music. The market is just to distribute music. But somehow in the traditional music business model, the business and market people dominate the field. They dictate the musicians. They dump trash to the listeners. So the new model of music industry through web2.0 is to connect the musicians with the listeners directly. There should be a way for musicians to easily upload their music and video online. And there should be a pricing model based on user participation (downloading or ranking). There should be an online community to connect musicians together, and to connect musicians with fans together.

The same thing applies to citizen journalism. When we look at the core value of journalism, I think we need journalism because it helps us to know what is going on in the local community or in the world, also it tells life stories, or it informs us so we can make well-informed decisions. But we look at our current main stream media, how far are they from those core values? So then you can think how web2.0 can connect different essential parts of journalism together (news source, professional journalists, and the readers).

So all these domains are social domains. To write software successfully in these domains are usually very difficult. The difficulty comes from the following:

1. very often, tech people don’t understand social issues (although I think they should, and their profession demands so)

2. even most social scientists don’t really understand these social domains. (social science, to a large extent, is a joke). So when programming in these social domains, the programmers don’t have any sound theory to fall back on. Their only way is to explore the social domain with their software, especially by coming up a way to involve users in the process of exploration.

3. the social domain is complex. There are something collective here. So there has to be a way to let the user participate

4. the social domain is quick to change

5. the content has to be huge so that the software can be effective

In a summary, social domain has a lot of life. So the social software has to be exploratory, organic, involving the user in the process.

All these demand a new way of building software. Actually web2.0 is a natural continuation of the open source movement. (If you don’t know what open source is, Linux is open source. Also most websites today run on a web server called Apache, which is also open source. I think most of the web2.0 websites are built in open source programming language and software as well.) Web2.0 is an extension of open source into the social domain. Or we can say web2.0 is social software.

To better understand how the grassroots efforts in software are related to other grassroots movement in general, I have to spend some words talking about the essence of software. So please bear with me.

Web2.0 is actually a part of the long time software engineer efforts, whose dream is to make programming easy so everyone can program (my revision of it is that if you can think mathematically and logically, and you know you domain, you should be able to program). If everyone can program, we can unleash the domain knowledge from the domain experts, and thus channel the mental world into the physical world. Python (a powerful and easy to use open source programming language)’s author wrote an essay about how programming is the next literacy that can record knowledge and share knowledge. (http://www.python.org/doc/essays/cp4e.html) Recalled from my memory and expressed in my own words, this essay says that for example if you are a professional journalist and you understand the core values of the journalism, how do you share your domain knowledge with other people? Well, you can write articles or books about it. Of course, then many people will debate with you. So it is hard to tell whether your knowledge is right or wrong. If you can program, however, you can turn your domain knowledge into software. Prove your idea with your software and make a buck. So by converting your knowledge into software, have it up running and used by many people, that is a verification of your knowledge, proving that your knowledge is working. Your knowledge is stored in software as well, just like stored in writings. But with software, different from literature writing, software is more like a dynamic writing, or a literature with actions. By using and reading the software (if open source), you learn about the domain knowledge as well. So software is a new form of expressing, storing, and sharing knowledge. That is why the Python author Guido said it is a new literacy. Actually a lot of successful web2.0 sites are made by people who really understand those social domains, and they just transferred their knowedge into online software, and they continue exploring those social domains with their online software by incorporating user participation.

Software connects the mental world to the physical world. It gives the thoughts a physical form. What is in our mental world can be stored, run, verified, modified, participated in, and shared. It is an effective tool to work with our mental world. So this is what software is about.

As we continue to improve our productivity in producing physical products, we human being are very weak in producing good social products. (Physical product is used here to refer to product that satisfies our physical needs, such as clothing or food. Social product is used to refer to product that satisfy our spiritual needs, such as learning material, musics, journalism, and so on.) So our current time is more about how to produce better social products than about how to produce more physical products. It is about how to pursue our real happiness. (For more details on this, you can read my comments on the article “whither the world”: https://freestone.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/comments-on-whither-the-world/)

As we mentioned above, misguided by science, social science isn’t able to provide any sound theory to guide us in producing good social products. What social science produces are social Darwinism, eugenics, scientific management, compulsory schooling… Such lack of understanding of human being ourselves can lead to disasters, as it has done in the recent century. Science is not able to understand mind because you cannot understand yourself if you exclude yourself. When it comes to understanding mind, it is about experiencing. It is all inwards, not outwards. All secrets are inside of you.

To understand ourselves, to understand mind, studying Buddhism will be enough. Whatever about mind, Buddhism talks about it the best. If I sound like a missionary, let me put it this way: out of so many philosophies/religions/thoughts, you will find that Buddhism is totally worth your time invested in. It goes beyond philosophies/religions/thoughts. Buddhism is the best school teaching of mind.

But to make the world a better world, mere Buddhism is not enough. Buddhism alone cannot save the world. (Of course, if everyone studies Buddhism very hard, maybe it will be different. But that never happened.) To really make the world a better world, we have to change the underlying structure of the world. Some limitations have to be broken through. Software is to break those limitations.

As we mentioned above, the social problems are usually very complex. Social software has traditionally been very difficult because of the problem of dealing with the complexity. The recent development in software, such as open source, web2.0, agile programming and so on, makes it possible to deal with that complexity in social domain. So software is actually handling that complexity in a way that social science is not able to.

So software is to bridge human world and physical world. It is a good tool to make social products. Web2.0 is the grassroots approach of making the social product.

So web2.0 itself is a grassroots movement in the software world. All the important tech in web2.0 are from grassroots efforts. Those grassroots efforts share similar visions of how software will change the world. So people involved in web2.0 have to understand grassroots. It is not just about making money. When it was not making money, a lot of people were still devoted to those visions passionately. Thus we have web2.0.

I am aware of the fact that technology can be misused and was misused. I never denied that. That is why it is important that grassroots people need to learn how to take control of technology. The grassroots effort in software world is also trying to make the programming easier for everyone. Furthermore, the misuse of technology is nothing if compared with the huge change that technology brings to society. To understand the impact of web2.0 on society, you can just contemplate what magnitude of change that the invention of printing or the invention of machine has brought to human society. Times that magnitude by 100, then try to imagine what kind of impact that will be. It is going to bring a huge change in the near future. Many social ideals that great people in history have been talking about for thousands of years are going to be realized in our hands! So it is on this level we are discussing the impact of web2.0.

Of course, the prospect of technology being misused is still disturbing, considering the lessons we have in the past (eugenic, world war II, scientific management, compulsory schooling…). With the advance of nano-tech and computer tech, as warned by Bill Joy, the West has to have better understanding of mind and ourselves before proceeding.

Here are some links to some easy reading that you can learn about web2.0:

http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html

http://youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g

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Below are some extra stuff that used to be a part inside this article. As this extra stuff provides more arguments about web2.0’s grassroots role, it is more scattered thoughts. So I put it as the last extra part. You can read it if interested.

Adam Smith’s capitalism as described in The Wealth of Nations is a grand design with very noble ideals. Its assumption is that the prosperity of a society depends on whether each individual can have the freedom to pursue his/her own happiness. Free market is the mechanism to achieve it. Of course, the current system in US is far from Adam Smith’s capitalism. It is far from the free market. Web2.0, by empowering professional individuals and dismantle mass production, is to bring back the free market.

In most web2.0 websites, users create their user profiles. This of course establishes their identity on the web. Users participate in building the software out of their own interest. Their collective efforts, somehow build a better software and solve the domain problem. This is in tune with Adam Smith’s social ideals.

Of course, a profile on a website is only one aspect of user identity. Blog is also another aspect. To freely aggregate various aspects of one user’s identity together and use it for various purposes will be one important part of the next stage of web development.

Talking about democracy, in any kind of democracy some kind of authority is still needed. Someone has to take initiative, be in charge. Just merely for the purpose of keeping the integrity of concept, it is better to have a small “dictator” in a specific domain. If there is no effective way to incorporate people’s participation, then some dictatorship is always fallen back on in the past. The issue is how authority is created and whether it allows flowing in both directions (I have to put some restraints on this to avoid confusion. First of all, such dictatorship stays in the profession. It doesn’t extend to private life. Secondly, if there is a way to democratically incorporate member participation in an effective way, it is always a much better approach. The existence of dictatorship only serves the purpose of preserving conceptual integrity and unleash the full potential of a single independent entity. However, in the possible future open organization and open playground, conceptual integrity is probably not a big concern since it doesn’t have to be heavily involved in a lot of strategic fights, unlike conventional organizations. In the open playground and open organizations, the leader of an organization will be more like public officer, whose authority is based on merits in that profession instead of private ownership. An open organization puts more emphasis on member participation than high demand battling efficiency. More emphasis will be put on leveling the playground and make it easy for all members to play instead of imposing a vertical hierarchy and relying on it. Of course, this is a debatable issue. I am open to new thoughts and experiences.) The current form of representative democracy in US is of course a form of dictatorship. It is dictated by big corporation or big government (which is often under control of big corporations). That is why although the majority of Americans are against invading Iraq, US government still did so. So web2.0, by having a way to effectively incorporate user participation in each social domain, of course is very powerful in changing the social structure.

For each web2.0 website, its building at the beginning is out of some kind of dictatorship. By which I mean it is out of one person or a couple of people’s craftsmanship, based on their own understanding of the social domain (although that understanding comes from their personal interaction with people in that domain). But a good web2.0 site will leave a degree of openness, a space for users to innovate. It gives users the power to do what they want, quite often out of the expectation of the website founders. This space of user innovation is very vital in the evolution of the website. There is always a balance between the dictatorship and the democratic participation. Some websites do more user innovation. Some websites allow less. It depends on the mechanism they used to incorporate user innovation effectively. If a website allows too little user innovation, users often feel suffocated. With the future open playground and open organizations, after the initial stage of the organization (after its mission and core values get well-defined and recognized), the organization will take a more open process.

So web2.0 is grassroots. It is the grassroots efforts in the software world to make programming available to everyone, so we can unleash the potential from everyone. It is intended to change the world from bottom up, in the grassroots way. As software programmers, we are doing our part in making programming easier. The other side of the coin, is that as a passionate individual in the grassroots movement you can learn more about web2.0 and learn how to use it to advance your causes. We both need to make our efforts. When these two forces come together, we will have real grassroots based society.

Note: Please join our efforts at Web2.0 for Grassroots Causes (Tech Activism) Group. We are based in New York. We intend to combine Tech, arts and activism together. We serve the artists community and activists community in New York City.

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