The Problems and Potential of Web 2.0

Figure 1: An example of a tag cloud. The most popular topics increase in size, which pushes minority perspectives to the sidelines

Figure 1: An example of a tag cloud. The most popular topics increase in size, which pushes minority perspectives to the sidelines

The CulturAll network is a national network of consumer groups, researchers and companies developing innovative approaches, tools and strategies to ensure that everyone in Canada can participate in the Canadian cultural exchange online. The first phase of CulturAll drew to a close on March 31st. We hope to move to a second phase to tackle a critical challenge and opportunity facing the disability community today.

Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, in describing his original dream for the Web, wrote: "it had to be not only easy to ‘browse,’ but also easy to express oneself. In a world of people and information, the people and information should be in some kind of equilibrium. Anything in the Web can be quickly learned by a person and any knowledge you see as being missing from the Web can be quickly added. The Web should be a medium for the communication between people: communication through shared knowledge. For this to work, the computers, networks, operating systems and commands have to become invisible, and leave us with an intuitive interface as directly as possible to the information." (Berners-Lee 1997)

Until recently, the Web has predominantly served as a mechanism for broadcasting information from a technically adept or well-resourced few to the many "consumers" of information. Because of the technical and knowledge barriers to Web publishing, the Web has not been an environment for bidirectional information sharing and communication. Only in the last two years, with the emergence of what has been referred to as the Web 2.0 phenomenon, convergence of telecommunications with Internet technologies, and the increasing ubiquity of online communication devices have we begun to approach Tim Berners Lee’s original vision for the Web. For the average user, the Web is moving from being primarily a vehicle for information consumption to a vehicle for information production and sharing.

RISKS…
As with all advances in technology and the associated changes in practice, there are risks and opportunities for certain groups. These risks and opportunities are greatest for users and communities on the margins. Accessibility and inclusion on the Web has been a difficult struggle with hard-won gains. As momentum in adopting accessibility policies and legislation finally increases (such as the W3C WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines with adoption in 26 jurisdictions worldwide), Web 2.0 technologies such as AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript and XML), if not designed with accessibility in mind from the start, threaten to nullify the gains made. These threats are based on new technical practices, associated social practices and new policy challenges.

Technically, Web 2.0 systems generate content from many sources and update only the portions of the screen that need updating. These portions of the screen do not have explanatory information attached to them, also referred to as semantics. Screen readers may not be able to detect which portion of the screen has been updated, or because of the lack of semantic information, what the meaning or significance of the update is, making applications based on technologies such as AJAX inaccessible to people who are blind. This is the subject of the much publicized Target store lawsuit in the United States.

Socially, new technology-enabled social practices such as tag clouds and social bookmarking intensify the effect of non-participation. All things popular and current rise to the top and gain additional significance. With the example of tag clouds, the most popular topics increase in size, while the less popular shrink and eventually disappear (see Figure 1, left). Thus, the values of popularity and newness gain prominence. This reinforces the popular view, and any perspective in the minority will never win the popularity contest. Perspectives that cannot participate are rendered invisible.

Regarding policy and legislation, it is difficult for any one jurisdiction to mandate technical requirements when what arrives on the individual’s computer or cell phone is dynamically generated from many sources, including sources outside the domain of policy or legislation.

…AND REWARDS
It is the experience of many that information technology can dramatically empower people with disabilities and their communities or other groups in the minority. In his 2005 article "We Are the Web" for Wired magazine (www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.08/tec h.html), Kevin Kelly noted that the Web has become an integral part of every class, region and occupation. "Indeed, people’s anxiety about the Internet being out of the mainstream seems quaint now," Kelly said. "In part because of the ease of creation and dissemination, online culture is the culture." He also points out that beliefs that the Internet would be male-dominated or reserved for the young were unfounded: "Everyone missed the party celebrating the 2002 flip-point when women online first outnumbered men. Today, 52 percent of netizens are female. And, of course, the Internet is not and has never been a teenage realm. In 2005, the average user is a bone-creaking 41 years old."

The Web brought about a democratization of communication channels. No longer was broadcasting available only to well-resourced, technically adept, tightly controlled media producers as in the era of television, radio or newspapers. Anyone that could mount a website could and did broadcast to the world. The Internet eliminated distance, making it easier to find like-minded individuals to form advocacy or support groups. Because the computer interface can be adapted to many means of access, the Web and email made it possible for many people with restricted access to communication (such as individuals who are non-speaking, who have very restricted mobility or who have a hearing disability) to express themselves to a large audience.

The move toward a more participatory Web should only enhance this empowerment. Unfortunately, this is not the case if technical advances are not explicitly designed to be inclusive. Not only can entire communities be disadvantaged, but because these technologies have become so pervasive, individuals with alternative access requirements can face barriers to participating in online discourse regarding matters that critically affect their lives.

BEING AWARE
As for the opportunities, a more participatory, pervasive and potentially context and location-aware Web, if designed correctly, provides the opportunity to create a Web environment that is more inclusive than ever before and functionality that could significantly improve our lives. This new wave of Web development promises to deliver the information and services that you need, when you need them, where you need them, in the form you need.

If your Web application is locationaware, it knows where you are and can deduce from your location what information you might need. It could direct you to your favourite coffee place or to the nearest accessible entrance. If it is context-aware, it knows what time it is, what is on your schedule at this time, what role you are playing at this time and what people or devices are accompanying you. It can then retrieve information appropriate to this context, such as the names and biographies of all the people in the meeting you are attending.

A participatory Web also makes it possible to engage a large collective to assist and support each other. When this is contextualized to a time and space the Web can be used to constitute and recruit a supportive community wherever you happen to be.

WHERE TECH MEETS CULTURE
Like all sectors, the cultural and new media sectors are implementing technologies and practices referred to as rich Internet applications, Web 2.0, AJAX and participatory Web applications. In fact, in many ways the creative sector is leading the way in this area. These new Internet applications are being used for social networking, collaboration, cumulative and collective production and everyday communication. Even many mainstream cultural institutions, including the government, are planning to implement these technologies.

Without access to these technologies artists, consumers or producers are effectively excluded from the current, popular conversations. They are denied a voice and will eventually be rendered invisible in this exchange.

Conversely, by virtue of their flexibility, these modes of exchange have the potential to be more inclusive than any previous technology. Web 2.0 has resulted in the rise of amateurism and a huge pool of volunteer producers. This energy and talent could be harnessed to create content such as captioning and audio description.

The CulturAll network hopes to go into a second phase that will create the tools, strategies and online environments to ensure that people with disabilities are able to participate in the online exchange called Web 2.0 as both consumers and producers.

Reference:

Berners-Lee, T. (1997). "Realising the Full Potential of the Web." Retrieved June 22, 2006, from www.w3.org/1998/02/Potential.html. For more information about Culturall, please visit http://culturall.atrc.utoronto.ca/.