Life or Death for Web 2.0

A month ago, I began a series of posts outlining some common themes:

  • Any system faces danger when it becomes a monoculture
  • Diversity offers many broad-ranging and sometimes unexpected benefits
  • There are many parallels between biological systems and technological networks like social software on the Internet.

In this context, "Web 2.0" isn't an overhyped and under-defined buzzword, but rather an umbrella term describing all of these kinds of social software that make use of Ajax-style design patterns to serve a useful, meaningful purpose.

Today, most individuals and companies making social web applications are existing in a monoculture that robs them of the broad perspectives, influences, and understanding necessary to create a community that's sustainable over the long term. In short:

The lack of diversity in Web 2.0 poses a life-or-death threat to its viability.

Petri DishIf the success and influence of the social web is to continue, we must make it a priority to include the cultures and communities that we've been ignoring, overlooking, or excluding. A failure to broaden our view will ultimately be fatal if uncorrected. How could this be true? To start, let's look at some of the ideas that inform this view, taken from a variety of disciplines including astronomy, biology, sociology and even cooking.

Some Background

No community can thrive without the perspectives of outsiders, especially if it's trying to serve those outsiders. The key to getting good results is understanding the importance of the variety of cultures available. We've all seen that communicating using all the tools of social media can make people's lives better. The reality is, those benefits can apply just as much to one's professional life as to one's personal life.

But the thing that strikes me as equally important is remembering that even the most powerful, influential, or pervasive lines of business are always in a tenuous position. You can have the power of the legal system at your hands, or the ability to talk to almost everyone in the country at home or in their cars, and still end up in a defensive position if you're not able to have a dialogue with your community.

PizzaIn the real world outside of Silicon Valley, people are busy solving problems that we often overlook, trivialize, or deliberately ignore. It's instructive to be immersed in a culture outside of the one where we create new technologies. For us, encouraging everyone to take advantage of social media is a fundamental necessity.

Hundreds or thousands of years ago, the greatest danger that faced societies was the introduction of a foreign culture's physical threats... the greatest threat to cultures today comes from not intermingling. Whether it's expressed in agriculture ("hybrid vigor"), or in the context of a cocktail party (being a "social butterfly"), making an effort to avoid cultural isolation is rewarded by making an individual or a society more healthy. That's not to mention the bonus potential of additional opportunities, higher potential for recognition, a larger market for trade or commercial interests, and a broader audience for communication of messages.

In biology, species with little genetic variation -- or "monocultures" -- are the most vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics. Species that share a single fatal flaw could be wiped out by a virus that can exploit that flaw. Genetic diversity increases the chances that at least some of the species will survive every attack. Building an industry around a monoculture places the entire economy in danger from unanticipated threats. And it's only the adoption and embrace of a broader range of cultures that can help an industry protect itself from that danger, or sustain itself when facing a downturn.

Planet EarthIt leaves me struck that something as big as, well, the whole world can look fragile if you step back far enough to really look at it. And a work that took enormous resources to support, unbelievable imagination to create, and true courage to execute can seem downright ordinary once it becomes ubiquitous.

The Good News

So, are we doomed? I don't think so. It turns out, this kind of groupthink or myopia is actually pretty common, or at least common enough that it can make the news today. From this morning's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam's article says:

While the instinct for homophily in politics and other areas seems hard-wired, technology may be fueling our nature. Cable television and the Internet have allowed enormous numbers of people in distant areas to form virtual groups that are very similar to what you see in the office cafeteria.

...While there is nothing wrong with being around others who are similar to yourself, both Smith-Lovin and Small said that people and organizations pay a price for homogeneity. In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one's positions closely.

So why all these words? Is a post with pics of a petri dish, a pizza pie, and a planet going to help? Well, the truth is, telling people to be more inclusive just because it's the right thing to do just plain doesn't work. I'm hoping that explaining that our self-absorption presents a mortal danger is enough to get people to do the right thing out of enlightened self interest. Fortunately, some people have already made some great steps forward.

When I wrote about what it's like at the Web 2.0 conference last year, I had despaired somewhat, thinking things could never change. Today, they still mostly haven't. But while I was complaining again, some other conversations popped up that started to give me a little bit of hope. "Be the fucking role models the situation calls for." "monocultures produce monotonous culture." "We should be learning from it and improving ourselves, not using the rhetoric of the past to brush off criticisms we're just too lazy or unwilling to deal with."

The people who are most likely to be threatened or insecure about the embrace of diversity are recognizing not just the opportunity of a broader view, but the necessity of it. Sometimes good ideas do rise to the top. All of us who've been in groups that were outside the monoculture have been aware of this danger, but now those on the inside are aware as well. That's real progress, and real cause for optimism.

The truth is, we need to fight monoculture for the same reason many of us abhor DRM, or fight sterile GMO crops, or argue in favor of Creative Commons licenses. The tools of expression, of communication, must be able to reach everyone, they must be able to bear fruit for those who would reuse or recontextualize them, and they must be available for anyone to expand on or build on.

The people in our communities who are most likely to make an unexpected leap, or to add value that we didn't anticipate, are the people who we aren't even making part of our communities. And it's not too late to include them. But if we keep thinking that diversity or rejection of monoculture can wait for version 3.0, we're dooming all of Web 2.0 to fail.

Resources

Most of the content for this post came from my own earlier posts on these topics over the past few weeks. See:

  • A Very Small Planet: Covers Jack Schmitt's remarkable "Blue Marble" photo of the Earth, also seen in this post.
  • Pizza Requires Culture talks of Jeff Varasanos' amazing, obsessive pizza recipe, from which the pizza photo above is taken. A key to his success is in understanding various yeast cultures.
  • Lawyers, Broadcasters, and Bloggers ... Oh My! Talks about some of the audiences outside of the tech world that I've been trying to talk to.
  • Hit the Road is about creating events for non-technical professionals to learn about social media online.
  • The Threat of Extinction previews Steven Johnson's Ghost Map, as well as a host of other books about plague and epidemics. This also inspired me to include Jack Mottram's petri dish photo, which is Creative Commons licensed.
  • Revising the Software Monoculture gives an update on Dan Geer's seminal look at software monoculture.
  • Monoculture Considered Harmful gives some background on the boll weevil infestation that devastated the cotton monoculture of the American South.

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