The Internet is not the Web
Before briefly describing some of its impact, I’d like to clarify what is meant by the Web. The terms Internet and Web (or world wide web), are generally used interchangeably but in fact are not the same thing. It is a technical point, but the Internet refers to the computer network that makes up the underlying infrastructure that connects the Web. It includes things like the data lines, and the software that passes ‘packets’ of data around from one computer to another. The Web on the other hand consists of the applications that we know and love, things like Twitter, Facebook and our favourite websites. This layer functions because of the underlying infrastructure provided by the ‘Internet’, and our experience of it is defined by the entertainment, information, and social interactions we derive from it. You could think of the Web as the software layer designed for people, while the Internet is the hardware and software designed to serve that software.
Greatest communication medium ever
Prior to the Web, no communications platform has offered the diversity of methods for creating, sending, and receiving media. We can watch and listen to music, take pictures and upload and share them on sites like Instagram, and with phone apps or Web services accessed by a computer we can upload or download all of the above. Facebook, Twitter and myriad other services instantly connect us with expanded people networks and compared to TV, the Web gives us so many ways to communicate and to enjoy and share digital media that if it came to a choice between them, I’d take Web access any time.
The Wild Web Frontier
Academic writers have compared the electronic Web frontier with the real physical frontier during the period of European settlement of America. There are real parallels because just as the freedom and space of the American frontier provided opportunities for people to make fortunes and to escape old world social constraints, the Web too has provided entrepreneurial opportunity and allowed for people to escape normal social constraints. Contentious social differences between the Web and ‘real life’ include the possibility of communicating anonymously and the potential power to generate non-government sanctioned world-wide movements.
In 'Communications, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society' the writer Castells, M. (2007), claimed that “If a majority of people think in ways that are contradictory to the values and norms institutionalized in the state”, that change will happen. And that “power relations, that is the relations that constitute the foundation of all societies, as well as the processes challenging institutionalized power relations are increasingly shaped and decided in the communication field.” When you consider what a difference the Web has made to our ability to communicate, it puts into perspective the threat it poses to any state or institution wanting to maintain a firm grip on hearts and minds. Not advocating revolution, just saying, the Web is powerful!
The Web has amplified our connective powers
In ‘Net surfers don’t ride alone: Virtual Communities as Communities ’ there is a quote by Phil Patton (1986, p.20) : ‘ the pathways that connect us via electronic communication (the Web), will connect us at the same time that we are in control of our connections, in the past, concrete highways connected us, but detached us as we utilised those pathways’.
In other words, in the past, the concrete highways that were built to connect us, at the same time detached us from those we wanted to connect with as we used them. The Web is not like this, we (proviso here – with a really good provider) can have unbroken connectivity and carry our connections wherever we go. Concrete highways isolated us when we utilised their connective power, but not only does the Web make us constantly connected, we remain at the centre of our connected universe no-matter where in the world we are. This distorted sense of finding ourselves always in the centre of our connections extends to time. The Web creates an altered sense of time.
On the Web, discussion not only lasts forever, it improves with time
We can comment on a discussion online that might have sat on a server unread and not visited for 12 months or more. Our fresh comment can reawaken a stale discussion as search engines pick up the new activity and draw attention to it, or from our own network of connections fresh attention is brought to bear. In this way, the Web can keep conversations alive indefinitely. This might have far reaching effects because a significant discussion keep alive this way, over time might become sufficiently developed and refined by the contributions of many, until great new ideas become available for everybody. At least this is the potential of the Web, and it is one reason some governments fear it.
Information tailored to my taste and delivered when and how I like it
A negative view about the Web is that it creates a possibility that Nicholas Negroponte from MIT Media Lab termed ‘The Daily Me’. This is the effect created by our personalisation of media streams where we pick and choose which voices and opinions we listen to until we have no need of contradictory views because our channel is already pleasingly full. This puts us at risk of simply reinforcing the opinions we already hold, and leaving us in a position where we have a reduced need to open ourselves to differences of opinion. This is a way of looking at the reality of having abundant choice, where instead of opening us to multiple views and opinions, it gives us the power to succumb to our human need for comfort and instead we take that power and stuff our communications channels with views and opinions that closely mirror our own.
Using the Web this way is possible, but I take the view that abundance of choice is good. I find that as the number of sources in your ‘communication channel’ increases, so too does the diversity of information because people are diverse and they like passing on things that they find interesting or strange. This is probably less true if you stick to purely social channels like Facebook where like groups tend to cluster to discuss things in common. But platforms like Twitter are ideal for finding information and opinions outside your normal social reach because it enables you to plug into networks that you would not meet in normal daily life.
Leave a comment to suggest other Web topics for discussion.