Idealog

10 Jun 2008

Dick Pountain observes the sometimes brave, sometimes brutal world of Web 2.0 self-censorship.

Back in issue 147 I suggested that the way the internet was developing showed parallels with a larger human history - that Web 2.0 sites like Facebook and Flickr represent the move from scattered bands of nomadic herdsmen and subsistence farmers into walled cities. During the almost two years that have passed since that column I've had more time to observe the process, and I'm more convinced than ever that the analogy works. These sites are almost like experimental laboratories, where you can watch the gradual emergence of different kinds of ethical behaviour. The membership of most Web 2.0 sites is international, anonymous and freely chosen, and the broad mix of people involved have to grope their way toward decent ways of relating to one another without much guidance from any central authority.

Perhaps a laboratory is not the most appropriate metaphor after all: sometimes I'm more reminded of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, where a bunch of bright kids stranded on a desert island have to organise themselves without the adults.

I still use Flickr most, and the behaviour there is strikingly ethical. If someone had suggested ten years ago that you could create a website where anyone in the world can post their photographs, you'd have cynically prophesied that within months it would be totally colonised by the worldwide porno biz. This didn't happen, and hasn't required a heavy censor's hand either. There is a No Censorship on Flickr campaign but it's neither high profile nor overly acrimonious. Most groups just state No Porn in their rules, and self-police by removing offending pics.

What interests me more is the way certain very human traits, like a tendency to form in-groups and to search for esteem, are flowering on Flickr. A sizable fraction of the millions of Flickr groups now either accept pictures by invitation only, or else give awards in the shape of fancy icons (sometimes animated, sometimes mimicking medals and other real-world awards). The motives are clear and reasonable in both cases: invitation-only guarantees relevancy by excluding pictures too far from the group topic, while awards typically come with an obligation to comment or award two, three or however many other photographs, giving everyone involved more views and comments. Such simple rules work well enough to keep Flickr both popular and excellent, but you can tell that a minority of users chafe under any rules at all, while another minority would love to impose more draconian ones. On some sites like Digg, votes from other users can cause your contribution to be removed, and a similar Delete Me movement developed on Flickr a few years ago but never caught on.

For an example of the dark side running out of control, though, check out Wikipedia. The US novelist Nicholson Baker recently confessed in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) his addiction to editing Wikipedia articles. Baker's is an oddball sensibility, equally capable of three pages to describe a clock ticking or inspired filth like "Vox" and "The Fermata" which soars high above the butcher-shop porn of the internet. His Wiki edits tended toward bovine hormones and fungal diseases of ivy. In the NYRB article Baker explains how Wikipedia continually struggles to repel vandalisation by the retarded frat-boy BRAAAAAP! brigades, but as a result is now ruled by bands of vigilantes who delete all new material without mercy or insight. This is such a strong claim that it needed checking, so I decided to attempt an edit myself. A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual Orwell Prize Awards Ceremony for political writing which is sponsored by The Political Quarterly, a venerable UK magazine for which I write occasional book reviews. Sure enough Wikipedia has an entry for Orwell Awards, but its link for The Political Quarterly was just a stub, so I tried to add a proper entry for the magazine.

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