Thursday, November 01, 2007

2.0 Culture Wars: Luddites and 2.0topians

I've been doing some reading recently about 2.0 on the library side of the fence. It's fascinating: the term "Library 2.0" was coined in 2005 and has a Wikipedia page and several bloggers, conferences, and active debates surrounding it.

Are the debates about what applications to use and which are a waste of time? Sometimes. But the most heated battles seem to be focused on the perceived divide between those obsessed with Web 2.0 and its power for good (2.0topians) and those alienated by and against it (luddites). Even the ones who are trying to make sense of it all come out swinging. Consider, for example, the above image, created by David Lee King, which describes less a spectrum than an ascension to 2.0topia. The image below, created by Meredith Farkas, is more balanced, providing a "cultural landscape" of fear, loathing, and obsession with Web 2.0.

Why are people religious about technology?
Or rather, why do people group themselves religiously around technology?

Technology isn't supposed to be religious. It's supposed to be about practical application of scientific knowledge, not fear, dependence, or belief. And yet we all get caught up in it--addicted to XM radio, extolling the value of real wrench sets over adjustables, fuming at the jerk who takes a call during dinner--because it affects and relates to culture.

To many people, the culture of Web 2.0 is threatening, overwhelming, and generally unappealing.
If we want to work with directors, trustees, and other skeptics to evolve museums and other content providers alongside Web 2.0, we have to work first on establishing a culture that makes Web 2.0 non-threatening and inviting.

What are the perceived negative aspects of Web 2.0 culture that need to be addressed?

Churn rate. Web 2.0 thrives on a constant stream of new applications and products. These products are entirely virtual and are distributed virtually, so the time from launch to editorial review is instantaneous. The result is a rapid boom and bust cycle that conveys the worst of "next big thing" mania. Toy stores have their toy of the year; Web 2.0 has its hot app of the moment. Why waste your time learning how to use something that will be out the door tomorrow?

In-crowds. The people who keep on top of Web 2.0 literally speak a different language from the rest of us. They don't just keep bookmarks, they Digg things and save them to They don't call a friend to share news; they blog, twitter, facebook, and myspace it. It's not unlike a hippie commune; everyone on the inside is ecstatic, whereas people on the outside wish they'd shower more. But unlike the commune, the insiders are constantly, ruthlessly spearing each other on blogs and message boards. Outsiders fear that they will be derided or discounted for their lack of savviness.

General Web skepticism. There are still many people out there who don't think it's a good thing to spend lots of time in front of a computer, who are perturbed by the idea of virtual social networks and online communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the constant question, "If your first life is good, why do you need a Second Life?"

Unclear application. Why should I use Facebook? Does my virtual pet really need a social network? While there are some sites, like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Flickr, that are fairly easy to understand, there are hundreds of others with no clear differentiated value. And even if you understand what a site does, what can it do for your museum? Can it generate revenue? Can it attract more visitors? "It's cool" is not a winning board room argument. The term "killer app" is only meaningful if it is "killer" for the audience at hand.

Addressing the Challenges

So if you're someone (like me) who cares about sharing Web 2.0 with others, where do you start? The first part of ending this war between luddites and 2.0topians is acknowledging and separating the cultural issues from the technology.

If you're an insider, defy expectations. Be thoughtful about why you recommend an application to others. Think of it like giving gifts; it's more important to give someone something they will like than something you like. Laugh with them about how crazy the volume of stuff out there is. Admit to them that you only really follow a few things. Tell them why you think a particular application does or doesn't have legs. Help them login and get started the first time.

If you are trying to convince your institution/boss/board that something is useful, justify it in terms of their goals. Talk resources and impact. If it's an experiment, say so. There are resources out there--experts, leaders of projects already underway--who can furnish you with stats to serve as arsenal.

Most of all, you have to identify with the folks you are talking with and give up your insider status. Pull back the curtain constantly. Be an ambassador (as cheesy as that sounds), validate fears, and then assuage them.

Once the culture war is over, we can start talking technology, looking for the applications that provide methods or content that help solve practical problems. Bridging the culture gap doesn't mean the technology will be any less exciting, useful, or impractical. What it means is that we can share that excitement without vitriol or fear. We can start making things happen. Together.

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

To me, it really DOES speak more to a spectrum - from comments I've received, some get it, others don't. Either way, you're only getting half the story - the image you're showing was the first part of a multiple-post conversation. The end result was this post (and accompanying pic).

Your mileage may still vary - but thought you'd want the WHOLE story. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

This is a topic I've been thinking about a lot--the audience (organization members) for the nonprofit website I run is not a Web 2.0 audience. I think a large portion of the membership uses email rarely and the internet less. Many are on dialup. On the very, very rare occasion the blog portion of the website receives a comment, it's pretty clear that the commenter confused email and commenting. I'm sure part of this could be that I'm doing things wrong, but a lot of it is just that our members don't interact with others online; they use it to look up information.

The thing is, I don't think that's likely to change--people aren't going to go buy computers or broadband connections and learn a whole new method of interacting with people just because of my website. So maybe it's better to provide the services they want rather than trying to convince them that Web 2.0 is so great they should completely change their routines and ways of looking at information. Is Web 2.0 so great it's great for everyone and we should all move in that direction or is it okay that people have different preferences along the continuum (I may enjoy using computers, but some people are happy living off-grid in a mountain shack, and I'm glad they're around and sometimes envy them, at least until I want a hot shower)?

Nina Simon said...


This question is near and dear to my heart, as I am one of those folks who lives off the grid in a hand-built cabin (though we do have solar-powered hot water for showers!). In other words, none of us is pure luddite or pure techy--we all have the newfangled technology and old-fashioned comforts and annoyances mixed up together (and therefore are all a little more similar than polemics may make us seem).

It seems to me that in your case (fossil bed national monument), blogging isn't about reaching your core audience--it's about reaching out to other audiences. Your core may not notice, understand, or care that news is being presented in this way, but people looking for information related to fossil beds or your area on Technorati or any other atomized view will. Yours is a great example of taking content you are producing anyway (news) and sharing it in a way that is more universally readable. If you had the ability to send out your news in multiple languages, why not? To me, blogging offers a similar level of flexibility.

Also, there may be many in your core audience for whom you are a safe and familiar place to open the door to some of these technologies. People who would never conciously read a blog may read your news, learn it's a blog, and feel good about themselves. I've received emails from several readers of Museum 2.0 for whom this is the first blog they've read, and I consider that a huge compliment. Hopefully all of our efforts will make these things a little less strange, a little more like tools and experiences that can be ported elsewhere in life.

Anonymous said...

Aside, I twitch a little every time I see "luddite" used to mean "not comfortable with computers" (with an implication of "backwardness") given the history of the word. Will we be calling the technology-cautious of the future "anti-outsourcers"?

Anyway, poorly phrased: there are people who don't use computers, period. Or telephones, or whatever. And I get where they're coming from--I don't totally think the direction society's going in is good for us (even from a purely physical point of view, sitting in front of a computer for 8+ hours a day is not healthy no matter how ergonomic your chair).

I like your way of looking at audiences (and one of the things we struggle with is broadening our core audience offline--finding more people who can be involved in the planning of physical events, who are actually willing to go to board meetings, etc. The semiremote location and the common nature of really long energy-sapping commutes in the area makes it difficult), but I do feel that we should also be providing what our core audience wants. Whatever that is. I'm trying to scrape up money and interest for user studies.

(Also, hi, been reading your blog for a few months, very insightful etc.)