<videovortex> web 2.0 criticism (from mute)

Geert Lovink geert at xs4all.nl
Wed Feb 14 14:11:42 CET 2007

InfoEnclosure 2.0 Editorial content | Magazine

Submitted by mute on Monday, 29 January, 2007 - 16:35


By Dmytri Kleiner & Brian Wyrick

The hype surrounding Web 2.0’s ability to democratise content 
production obscures its centralisation of ownership and the means of 
sharing. Dmytri Kleiner & Brian Wyrick expose Web 2.0 as a venture 
capitalist’s paradise where investors pocket the value produced by 
unpaid users,  ride on the technical innovations of the free software 
movement and kill off the decentralising potential of peer-to-peer 

Wikipedia says that ‘Web 2.0, a phrase coined by O’Reilly Media in 
2004, refers to a supposed second generation of internet-based services 
– such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and 
folksonomies – that emphasise online collaboration and sharing among 

The use of the word ‘supposed’ is noteworthy. As probably the largest 
collaboratively authored work in history, and one of the current 
darlings of the internet community, Wikipedia ought to know. Unlike 
most of the members of the Web 2.0 generation, Wikipedia is controlled 
by a non-profit foundation, earns income only by donation and releases 
its content under the copyleft GNU Free Documentation License. It is 
telling that Wikipedia goes on to say ‘[Web 2.0] has become a popular 
(though ill-defined and often criticised) buzzword among certain 
technical and marketing communities.’

The free software community has tended to be suspicious, if not 
outright dismissive, of the Web 2.0 moniker. Tim Berners-Lee dismissed 
the term saying ‘Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even 
knows what it means.’ He goes on to note that ‘it means using the 
standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 

In reality there is neither a Web 1.0 nor a Web 2.0, there is an 
ongoing development of online applications that cannot be cleanly 

In trying to define what Web 2.0 is, it is safe to say that most of the 
important developments have been aimed at enabling the community to 
create, modify, and share content in a way that was previously only 
available to centralised organisations which bought expensive software 
packages, paid staff to handle the technical aspects of the site, and 
paid staff to create content which generally was published only on that 
organisation’s site.

A Web 2.0 company fundamentally changes the mode of production of 
internet content. Web applications and services have become cheaper and 
easier to implement, and by allowing the end users access to these 
applications, a company can effectively outsource the creation and the 
organisation of their content to the end users themselves. Instead of 
the traditional model of a content provider publishing their own 
content and the end user consuming it, the new model allows the 
company’s site to act as the centralised portal between the users who 
are both creators and consumers.

For the user, access to these applications empowers them to create and 
publish content that previously would have required them to purchase 
desktop software and possess a greater technological skill set. For 
example, two of the primary means of text-based content production in 
Web 2.0 are blogs and wikis which allow the user to create and publish 
content directly from their browser without any real need for knowledge 
of markup language, file transfer or syndication protocols, and all 
without the need to purchase any software.

The use of the web application to replace desktop software is even more 
significant for the user when it comes to content that is not merely 
textual. Not only can web pages be created and edited in the browser 
without puchasing html editing software, photographs can be uploaded 
and manipulated online through the browser without the need for 
expensive desktop image manipulation applications. A video shot on a 
consumer camcorder can be submitted to a video hosting site, uploaded, 
encoded, embedded into an HTML page, published, tagged, and syndicated 
across the web all through the user’s browser.

In Paul Graham’s article on Web 2.0 he breaks down the different roles 
of the community/user into more specific roles, those being the 
Professional, the Amateur, and the User (more specifically, the end 
user). The roles of the Professional and the User were, according to 
Graham, well understood in Web 1.0, but the Amateur didn’t have a very 
well defined place. As Graham describes it in ‘What Business Can Learn 
 From Open Source’, the Amateur just loves to work, with no concern for 
compensation or ownership of that work; in development, the Amateur 
contributes to open source software whereas the Professional gets paid 
for their proprietary work.

Graham’s characterisation of the ‘Amateur’ reminds one of If I Ran The 
Circus by Dr. Suess, where young Morris McGurk says of the staff of his 
imaginary Circus McGurkus:

My workers love work. They say, ‘Work us! Please work us!
We’ll work and we’ll work up so many surprises
You’d never see half if you had forty eyses!’

And while ‘Web 2.0’ may mean nothing to Tim Berners-Lee, who sees 
recent innovations as no more than the continued development of the 
web, to venture capitalists, who like Morris McGurk daydream of 
tireless workers producing endless content and not demanding a pay 
cheque for it, it sounds stupendous. And indeed, from YouTube to Flickr 
to Wikipedia, you’d truly never see half if you had forty eyses.

Tim Berners-Lee is correct. There is nothing from a technical or user 
point of view in Web 2.0 which does not have its roots in, and is not a 
natural development from, Web 1.0. The technology associated with the 
Web 2.0 banner was possible and in some cases readily available before, 
but the hype surrounding this usage has certainly affected the growth 
of Web 2.0 internet sites.

The internet (which is more than the web, actually) has always been 
about sharing between users. In fact, Usenet, a distributed messaging 
system, has been operating since 1979! Since long before even Web 1.0, 
Usenet has been hosting discussions, ‘amateur’ journalism, and enabling 
photo and file sharing. Like the internet, it is a distributed system 
not owned or controlled by anyone. It is this quality, a lack of 
central ownership and control, that differentiate services such as 
Usenet from Web 2.0.

If Web 2.0 means anything at all, its meaning lies in the rationale of 
venture capital. Web 2.0 represents the return of investment in 
internet startups. After the dotcom bust (the real end of Web 1.0) 
those wooing investment dollars needed a new rationale for investing in 
online ventures. ‘Build it and they will come’, the dominant attitude 
of the ’90s dotcom boom, along with the delusional ‘new economy’, was 
no longer attractive after so many online ventures failed. Building 
infrastructure and financing real capitalisation was no longer what 
investors were looking for. Capturing value created by others, however, 
proved to be a more attractive proposition.

Web 2.0 is Internet Investment Boom 2.0. Web 2.0 is a business model, 
it means private capture of community-created value. No one denies that 
the techology of sites like YouTube, for instance, is trivial. This is 
more than evidenced by the large number of identical services such as 
DailyMotion. The real value of YouTube is not created by the developers 
of the site, but rather it is created by the people who upload videos 
to the site. Yet, when YouTube was bought for over a billion dollars 
worth of Google stock, how much of this stock was acquired by those 
that made all these videos? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Great deal if you are an 
owner of a Web 2.0 company.

  The value produced by users of Web 2.0 services such as YouTube is 
captured by capitalist investors. In some cases, the actual content 
they contribute winds up the property of site owners. Private 
appropriation of community created value is a betrayal of the promise 
of sharing technology and free cooperation.

Unlike Web 1.0, where investors often financed expensive capital 
acquisition, software development and content creation, a Web 2.0 
investor mainly needs to finance hype-generation, marketing and buzz. 
The infrastructure is widely available for cheap, the content is free 
and cost of the software, at least that much of it that is not also 
free, is negligible. Basically, by providing some bandwidth and disk 
space, you are able to become a successful internet site if you can 
market yourself effectively.

The principal success of a Web 2.0 company comes from its relationship 
to the community, more specifically, the ability of the company to 
‘harness collective intelligence’, as O’Reilly puts it. Web 1.0 
companies were too monolithic and unilateral in their approach to 
content. Success stories of the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 were 
based on the ability for a company to remain monolithic in its brand of 
content, or better yet, its outright ownership of that content, while 
opening up the method of that content’s creation to the community. 
Yahoo! Created a portal to community content while it remained the 
centralised location to find that content. EBay allows the community to 
sell its goods while owning the marketplace for those goods. Amazon, 
selling the same products as many other sites, succeeded by allowing 
the community to participate in the ‘flow’ around their products.

Because the capitalists who invest in Web 2.0 startups do not often 
fund early capitalisation, their behaviour is markedly more parasitic 
as well. They often arrive late in the game when value creation already 
has good momentum, swoop in to take ownership and use their financial 
power to promote the service, often within the context of a hegemonic 
network of major, well financed partners. This means that companies 
that are not acquired by venture capital end up cash starved and 
squeezed out of the club.

In all these cases, the value of the internet site is created not by 
the paid staff of the company that runs it, but by the users who use 
it. With all of the emphasis on community created content and sharing, 
it’s easy to overlook the other side of the Web 2.0 experience: 
ownership of all this content and ability to monetise its value. To the 
user, this doesn’t come up that often, it’s only part of the fine print 
in their MySpace Terms of Service agreement, or it’s the Flickr.com in 
the url of their photos. It doesn’t usually seem like an issue to the 
community, it’s a small price to pay for the use of these wonderful 
applications and for the impressive effect on search engine results 
when one queries one’s own name. Since most users do not have access to 
alternative means to produce and publish their own content, they are 
attracted to sites like MySpace and Flickr.

Meanwhile, the corporate world was pushing a whole different idea of 
the Information Superhighway, producing monolithic, centralised ‘online 
services’ like CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. What separated these from 
the internet is that these were centralised systems that all users 
connect directly to, while the internet is a peer-to-peer network, 
every device with a public internet address can communicate directly to 
any other device. This is what makes peer-to-peer technology possible, 
this is also what makes independent internet service providers 

It should be added that many open source projects can be cited as the 
key innovations in the development of Web 2.0: free software like 
Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL, Python, etc. are the backbone of Web 2.0, 
and the web itself. But there is a fundamental flaw with all of these 
projects in terms of what O’Reilly refers to as the Core Competencies 
of Web 2.0 Companies, namely control over unique, hard-to-recreate data 
sources that get richer as more people use them – the harnessing of the 
collective intelligence they attract. Allowing the community to 
contribute openly and to utilise that contribution within the context 
of a proprietary system where the proprietor owns the content is a 
characteristic of a successful Web 2.0 company. Allowing the community 
to own what it creates, though, is not. Thus, to be successful and 
create profits for investors, a Web 2.0 company needs to create 
mechanisms for sharing and collaboration that are centrally controlled. 
The lack of central control possessed by Usenet and other peer 
controlled technologies is the fundamental flaw. They only benefit 
their users, they do not benefit absentee investors, as they are not 

Thus, because Web 2.0 is funded by Capitalism 2006, Usenet is mostly 
forgotten. While everybody uses Digg and Flickr, and YouTube is worth a 
billion dollars, PeerCast, an innovative peer-to-peer live video 
streaming network that has been in existence for several years longer 
than YouTube, is virtually unknown.

 From a technological stand point, distributed and peer-to-peer (P2P) 
technologies are far more efficient than Web 2.0 systems. Making better 
use of network resources by using the computers and network connections 
of users, P2P avoids creating bottlenecks created by centralised 
systems and allows content to be published with less infrastructure, 
often no more than a computer and a consumer internet connection. P2P 
systems do not require the massive data centres of sites such as 
YouTube. The lack of central infrastructure also comes with a lack of 
central control, meaning that censorship, often a problem with 
privately-owned ‘communities’ that frequently bend to private and 
public pressure groups and enforce limitations on the the kinds of 
content they allow. Also, the lack of large central cross-referencing 
databases of user information has a strong advantage in terms of 

 From this perspective, it can be said that Web 2.0 is capitalism’s 
preemptive attack against P2P systems. Despite their many disadvantages 
in comparison to these, Web 2.0 is more attractive to investors, and 
thus has more money to fund and promote centralised solutions. The end 
result of this is that capitalist investment flowed into centralised 
solutions making them easy and cheap or free for non-technical 
information producers to adopt. Thus, this ease of access compared to 
the more technically challenging and expensive undertaking of owning 
your own means of information production created a ‘landless’ 
information proletariat ready to provide alienated content-creating 
labour for the the new info-landlords of Web 2.0.

It is often said that the internet took the corporate world by 
surprise, coming as it did out of publicly funded university and 
military research. It was promoted by way of a cottage industry of 
small independent internet service providers who were able to squeeze a 
buck out of providing access to the state-built and financed network.

The internet seemed anathema to the capitalist imagination. Web 1.0, 
the original dotcom boom, was characterised by a rush to own the 
infrastructure, to consolidate the independent internet service 
providers. While money was thrown around quite randomly as investors 
struggled to understand what this medium would actually be used for, 
the overall mission was largely successful. If you had an internet 
account in 1996 it was likely provided by some small local company. Ten 
years later, while some of the smaller companies have survived most 
people get their internet access from gigantic telecommunications 
corporations. The mission of Internet Investment Boom 1.0 was to 
destroy the independent service provider and put large, well financed, 
corporations back in the driving seat.

The mission of Web 2.0 is to destroy the P2P aspect of the internet. To 
make you, your computer, and your internet connection dependent on 
connecting to a centralised service that controls your ability to 
communicate. Web 2.0 is the ruin of free, peer-to-peer systems and the 
return of monolithic ‘online services’. A telling detail here is that 
most home or office internet connections in the ’90s, modem and ISDN 
connections, were synchronous – equal in their ability to send and 
receive data. By design, your connection enabled you to be equally a 
producer and a consumer of information. On the other hand, modern DSL 
and cable-modem connections are asynchronous, allowing you to download 
information quickly, but upload slowly. Not to mention the fact that 
many user agreements for internet service forbid you to run servers on 
your consumer circuit, and may cut off your service if you do.

Capitalism, rooted in the idea of earning income by way of idle share 
ownership, requires centralised control, without which peer producers 
have no reason to share their income with outside shareholders. 
Capitalism, therefore, is incompatible with free P2P networks, and 
thus, so long as the financing of internet development comes from 
private shareholders looking to capture value by owning internet 
resources, the network will only become more restricted and 

It should be noted that even in the case of commons-based peer 
production, so long as the commons and membership in the peer group is 
limited, and inputs such as food for the producers and the computers 
that they use are acquired from outside the commons-based peer group, 
then the peer producers themselves may be complicit in the exploitative 
capturing of this labour value. Thus in order to really address the 
unjust capture of alienated labour value, access to the commons and 
membership in the peer group must be extended as far as possible toward 
the inclusion of a total system of goods and services. Only when all 
productive goods are available from commons-based producers can all 
producers retain the value of the product of their labour.

And while the information commons may have the possibility of playing a 
role in moving society toward more inclusive modes of production, any 
real hope for a genuine, community enriching, next generation of 
internet-based services is not rooted in creating privately owned, 
centralised resources, but rather in creating cooperative, P2P and 
commons-based systems, owned by everybody and nobody. Although small 
and obscure by today’s standards, with it’s focus on peer-to-peer 
applications such as Usenet and email, the early internet was very much 
a common, shared resource. Along with the commercialisation of the 
internet and the emergence of capitalist financing comes the enclosure 
of this information commons, translating public wealth into private 
profit. Thus Web 2.0 is not to be thought of as a second-generation of 
either the technical or social development of the internet, but rather 
as the second wave of capitalist enclosure of the Information Commons.

Virtually all of the most used internet resources could be replaced by 
P2P alternatives. Google could be replaced by a P2P search system, 
where every browser and every webserver were active nodes in the search 
process; Flickr and YouTube could also be replaced by PeerCast and 
eDonkey type applications, which allow users to use their own computers 
and internet connections to collaboratively share their pictures and 
videos. However, developing internet resources requires the application 
of wealth, and so long as the source of this wealth is finance capital, 
the great peer-to-peer potential of the internet will remain 


Dmytri Kleiner <dk AT haagenti.com> is an anarchist hacker and a 
co-founder of Telekommunisten, a worker-owned technology company 
specialising in telephone systems. Dmytri is a USSR-born Canadian, 
currently living in Berlin with his wife Franziska and his daughter 

Brian Wyrick <brian AT pseudoscope.com> is an artist, film maker and 
web developer working in Berlin and Chicago. He also co-founded Group 
312 Films, a Chicago-based film group, and posts updates regarding his 
projects and adventures at http://www.pseudoscope.com

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