April 2008 Transcript: Michael Zimmer

AJ: Welcome to First Monday Podcast I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria.

AJ: First Monday has put together a special issue entitled “Critical Perspecitive on Web 2.0”.

Joy: We sat down with special editor Michael Zimmer to discuss how Web 2.0 has affected the average user.

AJ: Micheal, welcome to the podcast.

Michael: Hi!

Joy: Welcome to the podcast, Michael. Why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.

Michael: Well, my name is Michael Zimmer and I’m currently the Microsoft Resident Fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. I recently completed my PhD in the Department of Media Culture and Communication at NYU, where I studied privacy, surveillance and web search engines and the work that I'm doing now is focusing a lot on trying to build best practices, trying to engage in value conscious design of Web tools, web search engines and Web 2.0 type applications working with search engine companies working with social network companies working with libraries to try to sort of understand the ethical privacy and access to knowledge and access to information and some of the other implications of these kind of tools.

Joy: What is “Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0” all about?

Michael: Well, the thing that motivated this actually started out as a panel discussion, at a recent conference of the Association of Internet Researchers and a group of us, four of us that were involved in this issue had been thinking about Web 2.0 and you know we were sort of questioning the rhetoric behind it, sort of questioning the enthusiasm and we tended to come from disciplines and critical studies where we’re trained to think a little bit critically of course.

AJ: Okay, can you sum up you’re personal opinion of what Web 2.0 is? What is it right now at this moment at 6:55 p.m.?

Michael: [Laughter] To me it comes down to being it’s powered by a set of software tools that are available to us online that allows much more interaction and a much easier level of interaction for users with information and with each other online. I agree with Trebor Scholz who has actually the starting essay in the special issue that you know a lot of the things that we consider Web 2.0 have existed for a long time.

But there’s just something now about the ease and sort of the ubiquity and the processing speeds and the power, it just, the depth and everything that right now there’s all kinds of tools and all kinds of ways that you could interact with each other and you could interact with information and mashup and cooperate and coordinate and peer produce, and to me that’s what all this Web 2.0 is – it’s you know it spans the gamut of YouTube to Wikipedia and Flickr and Facebook and all these kind of things. It’s just sort of empowering people to use tools and share information and interact and socialize.

Joy: In the preface you describe David Silver’s epilogue, in which David remarks, “In our age of everything new and everything now we could use a little history.” Is there something about this particular moment in time that makes it especially appropriate to take a step back and reflect on Web 2.0? Could this issue have come out two years ago? Could it have waited two years? Give us your thoughts?

Michael: That’s a good question, I mean I think it’s important now for a couple of reasons. A couple years ago sites like Facebook were you know still in just the hands of students from Harvard and maybe a few other universities. There’s a lot of things happening just in the last year or so in terms of really the explosion of these tools and especially the opening up of the platforms through APIs, the Application Programming Interfaces, for sites like Facebook and now especially with Google, with Google Maps and some of their other tools, you’re able to build these really slick applications on top of these programs. Where I think that you know that’s something that’s happened just in the last you know couple of years. Certainly the speed of computers and the much more common distribution of broadband has enable a lot of these tools to really thrive that may not have happened a couple of years ago.

So I think you know from a short–term perspective that’s why now is important. And I also think David’s point of having able to stop and look at history is important with Web technology in general because everything happens faster when we’re talking about Internet tools.

If we’re talking about a new type of television or a new type of telephone that gets developed it takes a while to build, to mass produce, distribute, you know people have to replace TVs you know old technologies took longer to permeate through society, through culture, but with the Web or Facebook makes a change or adds a new feature you know boom it’s on everyone’s computer at that instant. So we often don’t have time to sort of sit back and think about whether or not I really want to have this feature, is this a good idea, do I want to wait before it’s installed?

You know everything happens so much faster with Internet technologies and I think that a lot of that was motivating David’s desire for us to stop and take a history. It’s odd to talk about history and Web 2.0, the term you know just emerged two years ago. I’m actually going to be involved in a very interesting conference next month in Montreal about the history of new media [1] where we’re going to be talking about this very notion, you know, how do we do histories of new media and the importance of doing it.

Really to me it’s because of that speed of distribution and how quickly they become ubiquitous in our society which is why we need to stop and sort of take stock at this kind of moment.

We make Faustian bargains with the technology in our society so what we’re trying to do is sort of expose the Faustian bargain that we might be making with Web 2.0 just so we can help remove these blinders and understand what are the ideologies behind them.

AJ: It seems like a lot of the articles focus on the negative aspects of collecting all this personal information, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a moment and just say...

Michael: Sure.

AJ: if you haven’t really been doing something wrong on the Internet, you know, to quote Alfred E. Neuman, “Why worry?” What are they actually going to do with all that information they’re harvesting?

Michael: Well, one of the concerns and part of what I get into actually in my contribution is that it’s not so much the fact that the people building these tools have the information. As you know Google you know may track my history in order to provide me better results and provide me more relevant ads and that might be a good thing for me. Or similarly, Facebook might be able to show me things that are more interesting to me if they know you know what my likes and dislikes are.

A lot of the concern that comes into some of the perspective that I try to bring to it is what are the other sort of externalities and just the fact that there is a database somewhere with all of my interests and with all my intentions and all the things that I do in it. Is that something that a government could try to access or is that something that might eventually be sold and used in a discriminatory way against me in terms of offering services or not offering services, so it’s sort of like you know there’s this potentiality for harm that we just need to make people more aware of and I think that’s a lot of the reason that we wanted to have this issue and the these kind of perspectives.

Joy: Something you said really struck me just now. You said you and the contributors wanted to get people or the general public to be more aware or to think critically about the Internet. But do you feel, the general public really cares about these issues or is it that they don’t know about them? If they don’t care, then how do you get people interested?

Michael: Well, those are great questions and it actually comes up a lot in my work generally because so much of what I’m concerned with are sort of the ethical and value perspective of a lot of the technologies that we use. How do you be an advocate for privacy or for some of these issues? There’s all this evidence showing that the people just don’t care or that or it seems that with social networking and with younger generations certainly it appears that perhaps they don’t have the same concerns about personal information that people of my generation or older generations might have.

So sometimes you know you feel like you almost need to take the stance of I’ll be an advocate on your behalf you may not have the luxury that we have as scholars to be able to sit back and really think about it and sort of get behind the interfaces and behind the rhetoric to try to see what some of the harms might be so I’ll sorta do it on your behalf and try to educate the populace that way. So it’s a challenge and I see your point because if they don’t care, how do we communicate that?

AJ: What are you personally doing to help bring awareness to these types of situations?

Michael: A couple of things, I mean one thing is that hopefully the kind of things that I’m able to do through my blog and be able to help spread awareness and create means to spread through the blogosphere and in issues like this in open journals and trying to do open scholarship and presenting the work that I present which is tending to look at these ethical perspectives of search engines and Web 2.0 and I present them at library conferences and ethical conferences and legal conferences and you know trying to sort of cross the disciplines and sort of be viral in that way.

Some of the interesting work that we’re doing where I’m based now at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School deals with publishing white papers, working with in fact we have people working on community wireless precisely that issue working with wireless providers. I’m starting to do some work with libraries that are interested in integrating Web 2.0 into libraries and how do we create best practices and good policies and get them to design their tools and technologies in ways that are conscious of these issues.

So it’s really trying to sort of take our scholarship and turn them into educational opportunities like I mentioned and also pragmatic opportunities working with the actual companies so it’s not just a bunch of scholars sitting back and writing for other scholars but we’re trying to do public advocacy and also sort of intervene and work pragmatically with the designers of these technologies and hopefully we’re going to be successful in doing that.

AJ: Do you foresee the rise of social not for profit organizations to help advocate for the users? We have the Better Business Bureau to help when businesses are ripping off customers, do you think that there will be a social organization that would come about to help create awareness and help users considering how pervasive the use of the Web is in modern living?

Michael: Right.

AJ: Do you think such an advocacy group would gain a foothold and be able to help?

Michael: Yeah I think it could and in some regards you know government agencies like the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] has been a little bit involved in these kinds of concerns especially in terms of the search engine practices they’ve made some comments, they haven’t issued any rules or anything but they have made recommendations and comments.

Of course there are groups like EPIC [Electronic Privacy Center] or EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] that are involved in these kind of issues but there actually might be something coming out of industry itself. I’ve met with and talked with the privacy officers for the search engines in a lot of these companies. They’re very concerned and they acknowledge these issues and they’re trying to find ways to help educate their users.

You know Google was doing is trying to do a lot to help educate people on what they collect and how they collect it and what they do with it. They’re creating YouTube channels and they’re blogging about it, so actually there might be you know sort of this mix between the company’s privacy officers who are sort of seen often as advocates within the company for privacy and there’s also organizations like the National Internet Advertising Association[2] and people like that that are trying to be good citizens and trying to help educate people.

AJ: Ok, so assuming that I’m just an Average Joe Internet User what can I do to bring the academic ideas out of the ivory tower and put them out on the street and actually use them right now to protect my privacy and my information?

Michael: I mean think the one of the most important things is going to be recognizing that what you do in one social space online is not going to be restricted to that space and it’s coming to that kind of understanding that whatever you say here is not going to be restricted to just here.

And I think that’s one of the first things people may not understand, the less savvy users of main social spaces is the level and the fact that the Internet is built on the ability to track and to sort of aggregate activities so you know that’s why these tools are free that they’re able to place advertising and place targeted advertising. So it’s really trying to get that kind of understanding.

It’s sort of like having a sort of Web literacy that I’d like to create in almost every curriculum is that kind of literacy in terms of understanding how the Internet works what are the economics behind all of this and how is the information that you use that you do online how is that being aggregated and used to fuel the economics behind these tools so you’re educated so you know exactly what the consequences of what you do online might be.

It’s really trying to take our scholarship and turn them into educational opportunities and pragmatic opportunities working with the actual companies so it’s not just a bunch of scholars sitting back and writing for other scholars.

Joy: What is the one thing you want people to get out of this interivew or to get out of reading the special issue?

Michael: The one point that I would want to make is that I think myself and I think every one of the authors within this special issue recognize the benefits of Web 2.0 that we’re not Luddites every one of us has a Facebook account. Every one of us use all kinds of interesting Web 2.0 tools to share information and to communicate and that there are many benefits of Web 2.0. The ability to have social networking and to keep in touch with people, things like Wikipedia I think are fantastic where you can have communities of people engaging in the production of knowledge the sharing of knowledge and even things like Google Earth.

Really what we’re trying to do is trying to understand you know what are the implications, what are the issues behind these and how can we as users of these tools become better where perhaps try to mitigate maybe even resist, tinker with and just understand what it means to be using these tools and have them as such an important part of our lives.

It’s sort of like the notion of a Faustian bargain again to quote Neil Postman my old professor who acknowledged that every technology both giveth and taketh away. We make Faustian bargains with the technology in our society so what we’re trying to do is sort of expose the Faustian bargain that we might be making with Web 2.0 just so we can help remove these blinders and understand what are the ideologies behind them and that’ll help us understand and help us use them better and benefit society in the long run.

AJ: Michael I’d like to thank you for taking the time out to talk to us.

Joy: Thank you very much Michael, we appreciate it.

Michael: Thank you very much.

AJ: Be sure to check out all eight articles on the “Critical Perspectives of Web 2.0” available at the First Monday website.

Joy: There’s a link to it in our Extra Features section. If you have any questions or comments about this month’s episode email us at comments [at] firstmondaypodcast [dot] org. Or post something on our Facebook page.

AJ: Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next month.


[1] Michael is referring to "The long history of media" sponsored by the ICA (International Communication Association) taking place May 22 in Montreal. To find out more visit the conference website at http://ten.newmediaandsociety.com/.

[2] In an email message to the editor dated Monday, April 28, 2008, Michael wrote he mispoke. The organization he meant to mention is the Network Advertising Intitiative.