Google. Wikipedia. Amazon. Facebook. Flickr. Twitter. Ebay. YouTube. Has web 2.0 now settled down to these eight things? These aren’t necessarily the biggest sites, but they are the sites which get referred to again and again online and offline. More than ‘websites’, which is what the internet was to most people five years ago, these define what it means to be ‘online’.
According to Alexa, Google is #1, Facebook #2, YouTube #3, Wikipedia #7, Twitter #11, Amazon #15, eBay #22, and Flickr #33. But each are by far the largest in their own category. You can include Blogger (#8) and WordPress.com (#19), but most of their traffic is not people particularly going to Blogger or WordPress, but to access other people’s content which is hosted in those places. The rest of the top spots are taken by other search engines and portals — Yahoo, Windows Live, Baidu, MSN, QQ, Bing, with the first other category, Microsoft, coming in at 24, Facebook’s competitors LinkedIn and Myspace at 28 and 29. Most of the others are alternative versions of Google. BBC Online, the highest ranked news content provider, is 47.
This must be an unwelcome development for content sellers and would-be monetizers. The Times, the FT, and other pay to read or partially pay to read online papers would prefer a trend towards users paying for content on a free infrastructure. The reverse is the case: the infrastructure remains free, but more and more users are generating their own content and relying on other user-generated content for much of their input.
The dominance of the big eight is unwelcome news as well for the tens of thousands of discussion-board based communities. A number of sites I used to frequent have either closed their doors or drastically dropped their level of membership or involvement. Some very large sites have prospered. Nikonians, a site which I help to moderate, has increased its range of services, moved to a paying model after an initial free-use period, and has continued to attract new members. It now stands at around the quarter million – not remotely in the region of the big sites, but a substantial community for a specialist interest. Others have been less fortunate.
I use, and find useful, all of the sites mentioned in the title of this post. I wouldn’t want any of them to vanish. They represent radically different approaches to user-generated content, all of which I find in different ways valuable. But the gradual extinction of the specialist communities is beginning to remove the informal knowledge which was once the hallmark of the useful side of the internet. Ten years ago I might have said that you can find the answer to almost any question in the field of human knowledge on the web, but that 90% of the answers offered would be wrong. Now, I wouldn’t be so sure. When I was a more active Wikipedia editor, I spent a considerable amount of time searching the web for references. On any esoteric subject, most of the sites offering answers would be automated (and rebadged) copies of Wikipedia itself. The small expert-user communities do still exist, but they are under pressure. Internet knowledge has always been composed of three layers — authoritative, official knowledge, such as the Office of National Statistics or manufacturer websites offering software downloads, verified, referenced knowledge, such as Wikipedia, Britannica and most commercial news providers, and informal advice and opinion. If there’s an official or widely known answer, then the first two types of site are by far the best bet. But there are a huge number of questions to which there is no authoritative answer, but there are several useful ones. If you want to know how to solder one gizmo onto another otherwise incompatible gizmo, neither Wikipedia nor the manufacturer’s web are likely to tell you. But a small discussion forum led by one guy from Kansas and another from Helsinki might well already have the answer. And, if it doesn’t, you can always register and ask.
Google, of course, along with other search engines, comprehensively references these kinds of questions and answers, so, if it’s there, you will be able to find it. But the long term decline in specialist community sites means that — if not reversed — that kind of help will eventually not be available. Asking the question about the two gizmos to your FaceBook friends is unlikely to generate a useful answer. If you were to find the answer, trying to post it on Wikipedia would be unsuccessful — your addition would be swiftly deleted on the grounds that it is ‘original research’. Crowdsourcing depends not on the big, organised sites like Wikipedia, nor on the generalist social sites like Facebook, but on specialist, open sites where people gain attention based on how valuable other specialists find their contributions.
The other thing about GWAFFTEY is that they all try in some sense to regulate the internet.
Google regulates by allowing things which are more popularly linked to rise to the top (and advertisers, of course).
Wikipedia regulates by a fierce editorial community that rapidly deletes anything smacking of original research
Amazon’s user generated content is regulated by votes which push some reviews to the top of the pile and others to the bottom
FaceBook regulates by being a walled garden where you let the people in you like, and leave the others out
Flickr has both voting and popularity systems
Twitter lets anyone follow anyone, but drastically regulates the length of contributions
eBay is strongly self regulating with Feedback used to establish the credibility of sellers and of buyers
YouTube ranks by popularity, among other things
All this is good and fine — I can’t argue with the voting system on Amazon.co.uk, as I’m one of its main beneficiaries. Whenever FaceBook is criticised, it is most likely to be from the people who think it should do more to preserve privacy. eBay’s feedback system is necessary if people are to trust buyers and sellers whom they’ve never met. And so on.
However, none of these encourage the more nuanced growth of wisdom that we used to see a lot on small forums. Personalities would establish themselves, for better or for worse. Others would weigh the contributions. Sometimes opinions would change over time. It was possible to rebuild reputation, and posters would also stand up to bullies, eventually. Those who were particularly helpful often got invited to become moderators. Discussion forums could also set their own rules, and so would emerge as places of knock-about banter, such as DPReview‘s forums, or the much warmer, value-based forums on Nikonians, the site I mentioned earlier.
Specialist discussion forums have also been highly useful on divisive topics. Any book on Amazon which broaches the subject of the existence of God, for example, will have a slew of five star reviews praising it, and a slew of one star reviews denouncing it. The more popular reviews will also have a long string of comments for an against. This may be all very well for deliberately controversial books such as the God Delusion, but reviews in comparatively innocuous aspects of faith or non-faith tend to get spammed by opponents. One review I wrote, of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, a largely liberal-critical work, attracted the comment: “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens is both cheaper and the theology is much sounder.” I think we can be fairly confident that the author of the comment, one Jack L. Gordon, had not bothered to actually find a copy of the dictionary, but this is all par for the course on Amazon reviews. For gentle souls who want to discuss whether Scripture Union study notes are better than BRF’s, a safe space where they can talk about it without someone muscling in with “how can you talk about this, when you haven’t yet proved there is a god!” is infinitely preferable.
Small discussion forums are not dead, nor are they nearing extinction. Those that don’t have a particular resident community, like a football club, or particular product tie-in have probably got a life-cycle anyway. But the regulated, walled-garden internet is growing in strength daily. Given that most people really only visit half a dozen sites on a regular basis, a very high proportion of new internet users will not be investing much of their time outside of the big eight.
And that, surely, is a pity. The huge promise of Web 2.0 was that it would make the internet much more owned by its users. Perhaps it has done so. But it has not necessarily made more of those users into unique, useful content creators.