Web 2.0 refers to the change in relationship on the internet between the producer and consumer, it opens opportunities for an individual to become a prosumer. The user experience is no longer decided by the web site designer, visitors can now make public contributions and have shared ownership over a site. This causes a shift in power structures and a shift in models based on equal partnership.
This in theory opens possibilities regarding Habermas’ ideal democratic model of the ‘Public Sphere’. The ‘Public Sphere’ indicates a domain of social life where public opinion is expressed through rational public discourse and debate: a forum specifically for debate NOT collective political action.
Benkler identifies 5 criteria to judge the effectiveness of a Public Sphere on Web 2.0, it:
-Must be open to everyone
-Must show itself capable of filtering information
-Must include systems for accrediting information sources
-Must be capable at synthesising public opinion
-Must be independent from the government
Ben Robert identifies some problems with Benkler and his ideological view of Web 2.0 as a ‘new network information economy’. Although there is the potential through availability to multiple sources of information not provided by traditional media, the non-market modes of participation/production and the increased connectivity of individuals to each other, Robert contends that this network is not used in such a manner. Firstly; the network is not open to everyone nor does everyone who has access contribute in an equal manner. There still tends to be a domination by the same corporate media sites who do not provide the independence necessary for a true ‘public sphere’. With the top 5 news websites accessed in August 2012 being purveyors of more traditional media and from media corporations (http://www.ebizmba.com/articles/news-websites ).
The concept of democracy revolves around assumptions about the nature of political communication, these including the active and collaborative nature of feedback from those affected. Web 2.0 has the ability to provide that function on previously unimaginable levels. The recent uses of Web 2.0, specifically mass social media to cause fundamental political change demonstrates the increased capabilities of people through the web. Perhaps the greatest example of Web 2.0’s use in democratic ideals is the recent Arab Spring phenomena where a chain reaction of revolutions were ignited and sustained through social media.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnPR90dJ3Gk : Documentary on how social media was implemented in the spread of revolutionary ideas in the Middle East.
This kind of organisation and spread of ideas also have been replicated in a Western context, with the Occupy movement expanding from a protest in one city, to separate movements in over 500 (http://occupytogether.org/ )
Although not directly responsible for such political movements, mass and instant communicative media provides an effective tool in the organisation and propagation of political ideas. And raises the question, would a movement on a scale such as the Arab Spring or Occupy have been able to happen without the connectional and organisational apparatus of Web 2.0?
There is also the use of non-market participation on Web 2.0 linking back to the idea of the ‘prosumer’. There are users who contribute to sites such as Wikipedia or creating other user generated content who are collectively contributing to work that have a real economic value. These users are mostly exchanging their labour for no money or any reward, an altruistic act. This would fit in with Benkler’s idea of the ‘network information economy’ however a survey on those who used the internet frequently found that 52% are inactive users of user generated content sites, 33% are passive spectators and only 13% are actual creators: the average income of passive spectators is significantly higher than those of content creators.
There is also a significant difference between the users of the ‘commercially driven’ online communities (i.e. Facebook and Youtube) and those not-for-profit community based exchange sites (wikis). Most people who visit user generated content sites are taken there via the ‘commercially driven’ social media sites or through similar marketing mechanisms. An example of this was the ‘overnight success’ of a Dutch Teenager who through promotion of her Youtube video on the Hyves friends network (Dutch social networking site: http://hyves.nl/ ) and the eventual contribution from Justin Timberlake’s professional marketers successfully started her pop career. She has gone from relative anonymity to a Dutch celebrity with over 168 million video views simply through viral promotion (http://www.youtube.com/user/esmeedenters ). This also demonstrates the connectivity of Web 2.0.