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The cold, cold heart of Web 2.0

On the people-powered net, you're just another number

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What's missing from the numbers

But in both cases there is a crucial aspect of human relations that is missed out and threatened as a result. This is that the means by which people discover, choose or access something can very often contribute its value. People are not only outcome-oriented.

Technologies such as recommendation systems, used most prominently by Amazon.com to help people find books and music they may like, can erode valuable processes by which people discover new authors or artists. The process of discovery is speeded up to the point where the end product also becomes that much more disposable. Bands now shoot to fame with their first record, then disappear soon after. The pursuit of maximum convenience in the cultural sphere risks dissolving what we value in it in the first place.

Outside of the economy - and very often within the economy too - we find that the constraints and accidents of everyday life are the basis for enjoyable and meaningful activities. They don't necessarily connect us to the people we most want to speak to or the music we most want to listen to. Sometimes they even frustrate us.

But this shouldn't lead to business process re-engineering. Becker would disagree, but when we vote, chat to neighbours, browse through a record shop we are not seeking some outcome in the most efficient manner available. We are engaging in an activity that we find valuable.

Undoubtedly there are instances where we do want our social lives to be more efficient. Organising a party can be time-consuming and tedious, and the fact that Facebook now makes this vastly easier is scarcely going to harm the atmosphere of the party.

But we should worry about this psychology seeping too far into our lives. What if there were an application that could make it easier to pass on my love to a family-member? What if I no longer needed to read books in order to cite them, but could search the quotes other people had extracted from them?

The irony is that Web 2.0 has been heralded as the dawn of a new era of community and togetherness. Through the financial eyes of a venture capitalist, this may appear to be true. For the rest of us, what this means is that community is now available to manipulate, choose and consume.

William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch

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