Web 2.0 As a Society Anti-Pattern

Political scientists will kill me for over-simplifying it, but Social Contract Theory is almost universally accepted as at least to some degree true. Regardless of whether you think people popped up in individual vacuums and formed societies later, were created in societies, or evolved from already social animals, it's pretty universally agreed that today that we live in societies with governments with the understanding that we give up a few of our freedoms in order to protect many of our freedoms. Some of these freedoms are really, really basic, so this is independent of most types of government - i.e., you give up your ability to kill others ungoverned in order to protect your ability to live.

If you made it this far without commenting that we live in governments because some really strong people managed to manipulate the remainder, congratulations....

When I refer to Web 2.0, I don't really mean so much the technological aspects of it (AJAX, tagging, etc.), but more of the social aspects - sharing "anonymously", everybody owns the content, not a single entity, blogging really personal information, etc.

The interesting irony of the social aspects of Web 2.0 is that it seems to be the inverse of normal Social Contract Theory. Users give up many of their rights in order to protect a few. If you take a handful of examples such as social bookmarking, online journaling, and social exchange sites like MySpace, here's what people (knowingly or unknowingly) generally give up:

  • A pretty high degree of privacy
  • Varying degrees of security
  • Some degree of anonymity
  • A small degree of personal safety (giving up personal information and inherently trusting others leaves people open to situations they might not ordinarily put themselves into)
But I'm not yet convinced what people hope to get out of giving those things up. Maybe it's some amount of convenience (social bookmarking sites can be better search engines, maybe), or maybe some amount of hubris (can I reveal something really personal making my MySpace page uber-popular?), or possibly this is all an extension of the anonymity that Web 1.0 provided. People who were ashamed to socialize in reality began to do so in chat rooms and forums and stuff. There was some degree of anonymity, and a lot less shame there (they'll never know I'm ugly by the way I type, right?) But what has happened as a result of that is that online journal-ers (I count this distinct from professional blogging) give out really personal information to a whole lot more people than they would without the web.

A colleague says that most of the rights people give up now are more a result of ignorance than it is a willing belaying of rights in order to gain some other. I suppose maybe he's right, but it just seems so odd to me to give out really personal information, even under a pen-name, in the interest of .... something ....

Am I wrong? Am I reading far too much into a lot of the social sites? I don't follow them, so I'm really not "in the know" on their value.