People Like You, Like Blog Posts Like This

In August I was privileged to deliver a keynote at the 2017 Eurocall conference, an established (and very welcoming) community researching Computer Assisted Language Learning. I gave the mid-conference plenary, and notionally talked about how Web Science has changed our understanding of why we have the Web we have. The slide for my talk, titled ‘People Like You, Like Presentations Like This’ are on SlideShare below, it was not the talk I originally intended to give.

I was involved in this community back in the mid-late 2000s through my work on the EdShare OER repository, and in particular work with the (now disappeared) centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) on the Humbox and Languagebox repositories, which also led to the LORO repository maintained by the Open University.

Writing the keynote made me think a lot about the positivity and ambition that we all had for the Web back then, just after the emergence of the big Web 2.0 sites and Social Networks, and how that compares to the concerns and fears that dominate the conversation today. A lot has changed in ten years, and not for the better.

Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian blogger arrested for his activities in 2008, and released in 2014, summarises this very well in his reflections on how the internet and web changed during the years of his incarceration: “But apps like Instagram are blind — or almost blind. Their gaze goes nowhere except inwards, reluctant to transfer any of their vast powers to others, leading them into quiet deaths. The consequence is that web pages outside social media are dying.”

Hussein’s fears that the internet is moving from an open public space of blogs and diverse websites, to a closed and controlled space of social media walled gardens; resulting in a transformation from a book-like internet of links, non-linearity, diversity and challenge, to one of likes, feeds, homogeneity and comfort. He calls this new era the TV-internet, reflecting the passivity it asks of its participants, and its seductive and addictive nature. I noted the same concern myself in a blog post from 2010, focusing on the perils of apps verses the open web. That particular assault on the open web seems to have stalled, or perhaps been subsumed by the march of the social media providers. After all, the majority of people access Facebook through their mobile device.

In my keynote I wanted to reflect on Web Science, and how it could potential help with these problems – and why it has not been so successful at this so far. I think the issue can be traced down to how researchers have approached the original Web Science cycle, Tim Berners-Lee’s conceptualisation of how technology responds to issues, resulting in new behaviours that raise new issues. Tim talked of two magic points in the cycle, the first at the bottom is where micro behaviours turn into macro effects, the second at the top, where we creatively generate new solutions to emerging issues.

The Web Science Cycle, from ‘2 Magics’ WWW07 Keynote/ Tim Berners-Lee ©2007

Web Science has actually done pretty well at understanding the micro->macro part of the cycle. For example, we understand how the phenomenon of homophily, when coupled with recommender systems, leads to filter bubbles, and that filter bubbles are echo chambers and fertile ground for fake news. Similarly, we know that when sharing data online there is an issue of information asymmetry (that the company gets more from your information that is contained in the information itself, particularly as it can classify you against others, or create profiles of you), and that information asymmetry leads to the construction of a digitally extended self that you are not fully aware of, bringing into question the whole idea of meaningful consent in regards to personal data and privacy. There are other examples too – from anti-social behaviour and online fascism, to the long term effects of crypto-currencies. We have become good at understanding the problem.

In contrast, we are terrible at exploring solutions. The second magic is all about responding to these challenges, and conceiving of ways in which we can mitigate these problems, maintaining the positive outcomes of social media (oh, 2007 how I miss you) while minimising the negative.

I suspect that our own history of technological determinism holds us back. Having become hyper-aware of the unintended consequences of our technologies we have become reticent to try again. And this stuff is hard. Perhaps these problems (at the macroscopic level at least) seem unassailable, well beyond our capacity as independent publicly-funded researchers. But failure is a price worth paying. It may already be to late to save the web we loved a decade ago, but even if it is there are new technologies that are ripe for disaster – the Internet of Things and Mixed Reality Systems (my own area) already look like a breeding ground for dystopia.

My talk was more of a call to arms than I intended.

But we can and should fight back.

“These wall-stones are wondrous —
calamities crumpled them,
these city-sites crashed,
the work of giants corrupted”

– The Ruin, Anglo-Saxon poem, the Exeter Book