How critical should we be of Web2.0?

ESRC Society Today - Harnessing the power of the 'new' worldwide Web The event is part of the National Festival of Social Science, organised by the Economic and Social Research Council to showcase cutting edge research and highlight important issues in the social sciences. The Manchester forum will take a critical look at so-called Web 2.0 (referred to as 'web two'), the term given to the latest development of the internet as a medium that allows much more participation by its users than previously.

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"Web 2.0 is considered to be a far more open and democratic form of the internet," said Dr Miles. "It is no longer simply a repository of information. People contribute their own content in the form of personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, their own blogs and entries to information sources such as Wikipedia.

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A number of key issues arise from this 'free for all'. The quantity of information available for academic social science researchers, for example, is vast. But can the information be trusted? "As researchers, the internet offers huge amounts of information on people's attitudes and behaviour - but does this information have the appropriate legitimacy for research?" Dr Miles said.

These excerpts from a recent ESRC announcements indicate a certain level of misunderstanding of Web2.0 in the social science research community.

1. It is NOT referred to as 'web two' but rather 'web two point oh' (partly to avoid confusion with  Internet 2)

2. But more importantly, there's this strange emphasis on 'trusting the data' that was generated by 'users'. I don't know how to put it more bluntly but ALL yes ALL data is generated by users. Including papers in social science. Some users generate more data than others and some are read more than others but that is exactly what we should be investigating. It's simply a matter of asking the right questions. For instance, if a 1000 people say in their Facebook profile that they like to go clubbing, we can't necessarily have to infer that a thousand people like to go clubbing. All we can conclude that 1000 people put that on their profile.

The question is NOT can we trust the data but rather can we come up with a viable interpretation of the data available.  And that's what we should be critical of. Not the poor primary data. It's there in as pure a form as we could wish!

But what is even more interesting question is how do users of the internet come to trust the information they find. Very complex patterns of interaction and prestige building are involved and what's more, there have been many attempts at algorithmic representation of these phenomena. Again something to study!