Rubbish piles up in the dead end of Cyburbia

Financial Times - May 4, 2007
James Harkin

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Anybody heard of Facebook? Facebook.com is a place where school and university students go to kill time and - in the digital equivalent of a hello - "poke" their fiends, just for fun. It must be a great deal of fun because according to a recent survey, Facebook has become the favorite online hang-out of young American men and women between the ages of 17 and 25. If you are over 30 and use it, you are probably either a predatory pedophile or a potential investor.

The second coming of the worldwide web is taking its inspiration from a clutch of co-called "social networking sites" just like Facebook. In the course of the past decade, many of us - especially teenagers and young adults - have quit staring at the box in the corner of the room and moved to the spare room to stare at each other instead. We do so via a matrix of websites, all people from the ground up, such as the self-broadcaster YouTube, the vast calling-card emporium MySpace and the virtual universe Second Life. To technology geeks all this is known as online social networking, or web 2.0. For millions of young people, it is the only culture and the only kind of community worth having. Its avenues have become huge pleasure parks through which almost every facet of human experience can be funnelled.

Now come the first rumblings of a backlash, and from within the ranks of the digerati themselves. The internet entrepreneur and Silicon Valley veteran Andrew Keen has won plaudits and fame for his forthcoming book, The Cult of the Amateur, in which he argues web 2.0 has become a virtual dumping ground for the inane ravings of self-made nothings and of talentless empty vessels. Mr Keen is not the only dot-commer to be worried by the direction the web is headed. Last year, in a controversial essay posted online, the digital guru Jaron Lanier argued that the collective intelligence often attributed to web-based collaborations such as Wikipedia - the so-called "hive mind" - was vastly and laughably overrated.

The disgruntled dot-commers have obvious axes to grind, but they are also on to something. In the 1960s the grandfather of media studies, Marshall McLuhan, predicted that electronic media were digging the foundations of a "global village", a smaller and more harmonious place in which each of us would become aware of our responsibilities to the rest of the world. Forty years later, when we stare out of the window on to the web, what we see instead is a sordid cauldron of voyeurism and exhibitionism - instead of web 2.0, we might just as easily call it Cyburbia. Our deference to the user-generated architecture of the place has made it into a headless monster, prone to ill-considered flurries of enthousiasm and dangerous stampedes. Its rumour mill can deflate reputations without reason, bully journalists and politicians and poison the terms of public debate.

The battle over the future of the web, however, is much more than a tussle between evangelists for web 2.0 and stuck-in-the-mud internet entrepreneurs. Much more worrying than the myriad boosters of the "hive mind" is that our traditional cultural gatekeepers have been so quick to throw in the towel. Panicked by the growth of Cyburbia, they are in danger of losing their sense of perspective. In July 2005, for example, Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for $580m, money that could have been spent refurbishing his newspapers for the digital age. We can hardly blame marketers and media conglomerates for rushing to take advantage of this orgy of self-expression, but they should remind themselves that the architecture of Cyburbia is fragile. The hundreds of millions of people who pitch up in one of its car parks could decamp just as quickly as they arrived.

This week, Mr Murdoch summoned his top executives to his ranch in California for another brainstorm aimed at breathing new life into his newspapers and media outlets, many of which have suffered from the shift of young eyeballs in the direction of Cyburbia. Halfway through those deliberations, however, he took time off to put in a $5bn (3.7bn) bid for Dow Jones, one of the oldest media brands. Maybe he has realised that, in the brave new world of web 2.0, it is better to put your faith in brands that can act as trusted gatekeepers than to invest in the fickle whims of the online crowd. In the endless jumble sale that characterises Cyburbia, in among the voyeurs, the exhibitionists, the angry young men and the wheeler-dealers, anyone who owns the parking lot can make a quick buck. But let no one think that what is being sold is anything other than crap.

The writer's book, Big Ideas, will be published this year by Atlantic Books