Web 2.0 – if you don’t join in are you really missing out?

Years ago there was a television programme on the BBC called Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead? (I always took the hint, so I have no idea if it was any good). But the same is often said of the Internet.  For years I thought that the web was the coolest thing ever and would happily spend entire evenings schlepping around online, while non-internetty people said ‘you have too much time on your hands’ and ‘get a life’.  I took the view that there was loads of really interesting stuff you could only online and besides, I met a whole swathe of clever and talented people via the creative writing sites I hung out on.

Recently I’ve been considering the space between those views – is Web 2.0 life-transforming, or a zero sum game, or (whisper who dares) would we be better just switching off our PCs so we can do something less boring instead?  If you don’t join in, do you actually miss out?

Zero sum

Socially, I am no longer convinced we gain that much from social media. Here’s why.

Making friends

I’ve made a lot of  real flesh-and-blood, go-to-the-pub, dance-at-their-wedding friends on line (gain) but some of my previous friendships have lagged a bit because so much of my social life is brokered electronically (loss) so I don’t necessarily have more friends or better friends, just different friends.

Zero sum, for me anyway.

A window on the world

The web gives us access to places and people which is not limited by cost or mediated by the media:

I get a first hand global account of life in other parts of the world. It is unlikely that I will travel to small town America for instance. I get to hear the sort of trivial day to day stuff that I find fascinating.


Blogs tell me what it is like to be a bookish woman living in Idaho, or to live on a dairy farm in the mid-west, or to be raising a child in south London, or to be a mormon battling crippling burns, or to be a sex-worker.

While this is clearly a rewarding use of time, is it more rewarding than spending the same time reading books or being with friends?

Probably not.

Zero sum. People-watchers only.

Net Gains for niches

It clearly is possible to get real benefits from social media, but most of these are for people in niche circumstances.  For example:

Dealing with illness and taboos

Access to others in similar circumstances is a clear gain: no matter how obscure your illness or unusual your fetish you can find information and fellow travellers which you couldn’t get in any other way.

Could the time and effort spent on the internet give you equivalent benefits off-line? – Almost certainly not.

Net gain, if you are in a relatively rare situation.

Dealing with physical isolation

If you are housebound or physically isolated the internet’s a sanity-saver. And there are other forms of isolation:

For me, it’s communicating in English, amongst other things. This is something I can’t do where I live.

Could you use the time spent hanging around on-line communities to break down these sorts of isolation in any other way? Clearly not.

Net gain, depending on circumstances.

Being creative

Almost everyone likes to have their voice heard, and the internet gives everyone a platform.

It’s a curious bran tub full of frustrated artists, musicians, agit-prop bloggers and the like but it does seem that a lot of talent is being elevated by 2.0 into spheres they’d never have a chance with outside of it.

Could the time spent being creative on-line produce the same satisfaction if it was spent any other way? Well, you can join an writers’ club or do a creative writing course, but only You Tube is You Tube. So that’s a qualified no.

Net gain. Mainly for narcissists and hobbyists.

Feeding a news habit

The web gives you access to foreign, specialist and alternative news media:

People I know who rely on the MSM [Mainstream Media] and don’t use web 2.0 have a very different view of the world than I do. It’s scary, because I don’t think people realise how specific the MSM is in what it presents and how.

Can you keep as well informed with mainstream media? Well, maybe: I had a friend who did so using Teletext and TV news and the very occasional newspaper, but it is clearly quicker and easier online.

Before the internet I had to go to the library and borrow ‘alternative’ magazines, or read counter culture publications and newsletters to get a broader view of news. Or go to meetings and gatherings and talk to people directly more.

And of course now there is Twitter.

Net gain. News-junkies only.

Net gains in the mainstream

There are some situations where social media does make a difference in the mainstream.  But these are not life-transforming differences:

Keeping in touch

My guess is that more people in their 40s have dragged themselves online to keep an eye on what their kids are doing on Facebook than for any other single reason.  And it works the other way round:

I resisted Facebook for a long time, but joined as my family want to keep an eye on me and now I have a window into lots of other families’ lives, the stuff you couldn’t discover from tourist holidays.

This is the contentious one. Is socialising on Facebook better or worse or just different?  I suspect the answer is ‘all three’.

I succumbed to joining Facebook a couple of days ago BECAUSE my not-into-computers friends were using it to display all the photos / video of their newborn baby son. As they don’t use check or use email regularly I was feeling ostracised!

There’s also the alluring prospect that Facebook and Twitter’s frequent updates will make the Christmas Round Robin superfluous.

Net gain, but not necessarily a big one. Mainstream.


So there you have it.  I really should turn off my PC and do something more interesting instead.


Fancy going to the pub, then?

Thanks due to B’elana, Bright Blue Shorts, Christopher, coelacanth, Kea, lanzababy, and Mrs Zen for the quotations.

18 responses to “Web 2.0 – if you don’t join in are you really missing out?

  1. I work at home, alone. I am sure that an increasing number of people are in this situation. The internet makes this far more tolerable. However, it is hard for me to keep regular working hours, or to avoid being ‘sucked in’ to the computer. To avoid this I try to schedule regular outings to the ‘real world’ . At least then I have something to blog about (LOL).

    • Those real-world outings are so important, aren’t they dressingmyself? If I worked from home all the time, then I think I’d get a dog to make sure that I got out for a walk at least twice a day.

      Welcome to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to comment, I am just sorry it’s taken me so long to reply.


  2. Dear Ben

    Fabulous blog. Worth the waiting. Keep spreading the word. Web 2.0 is all about publishing one’s creative side as well as social.


  3. LOVE to come to the pub with you! After knowing each other for three years online, it’s about bloody time isn’t it?

  4. A few observations:

    As a “publishing” outlet, Web 2.0 works, after a fashion, but it’s highly debatable whether it is significantly different from what went before, other than in removing some of the barriers to entry and distribution. One should never forget Sturgeon’s maxim – 90% of everything is crud. In Web 2.0 publishing, turn that up to 99%. There are two differences in the new model.

    On the one hand, some of that 1% are people who by dint of bad luck would not, previously, have been heard. People whose talent alone was not enough. But they’re a small proportion of that 1%.

    And they’re overwhelmed by the other people. I think of these as the X factor people. I don’t mean the people who win X factor. I mean the people they show in order to allow the audience to laugh at them. The people who have delusions of talent, profundity and/or importance. The people who are supported in those delusions by indulgent family, partner and friends. Web 2.0 is, unfortunately, pretty good at reinforcing their delusions by connecting them with the same sort of fruitbat elsewhere in a circlejerk of insular self-congratulation. Any yahoo who can operate a keyboard can set themself up a blog and kid themself that what they think and know matters.

    The real challenge is to sift through all that and find what does.

    Which sort of brings me on to my other point – using Web 2.0 as news source. Siftability is a two-edged sword. If you read a physical newspaper, you have to physically turn the pages and scan them to see if there’s anything you want to read. You can’t help but serendipitously spot things you’d never have chosen to linger on. Similarly, unless you’re a dedicated channel hopper, watching a main news bulletin will expose you to news you did not actively want to see. Frankly, I don’t care if there’s hyperinflation in Zimbabwe – but thanks to mainstream news, I know there is. My horizon is that broad by default… for now.

    But with Web 2.0, I can personalise my news. I can make sure that I am absolutely at the cutting edge of cultural events in my region of my country, the weather here for the next few days, the current state of the fluorinated polymer industry, the XBox Live charts, developments in novelty vehicles and communications devices… and nothing else.

    Previously, my day-to-day knowledge of the world looked like a cloud – amorphous, made up of tiny particles of information from all over. There was the occasional concentrated droplet where I deliberately looked harder, and the occasional void where I deliberately avoided news (sports results for example – don’t know, don’t care, never have, never shall).

    Now, however, the cloud has coalesced into a few much larger but isolated blobs where the droplets were. I’m now much more informed about those things I actively wish to know about. But the rest of the cloud is gone. There’s nothing there between the droplets. I now know almost nothing about things I don’t actively seek knowledge on, and that is something that has changed from how things were a decade or two ago. The dedicated generalist in me thinks this is not a good thing, although it IS an interesting thing.

    • I so wish you’d put “present company excepted” in with your comments about the ubiquity of bad blogs.

      Neil Postman’s superb book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” http://preview.tinyurl.com/yem92qk tracks the rise of the technologies which enabled us to have that cloud-like view of the news. Does it make us more informed, or does it just turn us into voyeurs?

      For years my ex refused to watch the news, on the basis that it was selected to be depressing, and if he needed to know something then someone would tell him about it. Worryingly, it worked.


  5. Very interesting entry, Ben,

    I’m broadly of the opinion that Web 2.0 has a net loss personally because it appeals to that enormous “easily distracted” portion of my personality. The number of times I have to tell myself to concentrate (and stop looking at the latest offering from xkcd or Failblog) is depressingly common. Therefore there are quite definitely situations where I have lost out on due internet absorption.

    However, in defense of 2.0, I would argue that this side of my personality would have found another outlet if 2.0 did not exist. I can’t exactly blame my tendency to get distracted on the Internet. If it wasn’t there, something else would have taken its place.

    I sort of take a different approach to SORB when it comes to my experience of 2.0, in that I am connecting often with people, as much as I am connecting with ideas. Since most people I know here have somewhat different interests, I get exposed to stuff beyond my cloud, which is still interesting. In any case, new media or old media, we have pretty good self-selection filters in use so some things just pass us by anyway.

    • >> it appeals to that enormous “easily distracted” portion of my personality

      Indeed. Which is why I am typing this instead of packing the kitchen so that the builders can have a clear run at replacing the worktop and plumbing in the new sink.

      Cheers Colm.


  6. I wonder if Web 2.0 means that there are less poor quality novels hidden in drawers?

  7. Got to be a yes. At least two of them have been turned into films starring Tom Hanks…

  8. I thought I didn’t need to specify present company excepted, after I’d said that the challenge was to sift out what doesn’t matter and leave what does. And here I am, commenting, which implies…

    How about this for an observation: from what source did you learn about the following events?
    1. The Ethiopian air crash?
    2. The Haitian earthquake?
    3. Michael Jackson’s death?

    For me, the FIRST place I heard the news was not the TV, the radio, another human being or a newspaper. It wasn’t even a news website.


    Now that fact, right there, is all kinds of wrong. Isn’t it?

    • I’m shocked, horrified and … laughing out loud.

      PS – in the first two cases it was the 7.00am news on Radio 3. I’ve absolutely no idea where I was when I heard that Michael Jackson had died. I’m so-o-o-o-o damn cultured.

  9. In part the reason I’m not as up to the minute as I used to be is that I’ve now got so many podcast subscriptions that my journey both to and from work, which would previously have been spent listening to John Humphries or Eddie Mair, is now spent listening to Zaltzmans, Andrew Marr, Melvyn Bragg, Laurie Taylor, Alok Jha, and Sandi Toksvig. As a result, what news I get is (a) filtered through satire and (b) last week.

    Another observation: “Why Don’t You” was created in an era when there were three (count ’em) TV channels and no internet.

    One of my major problems with Web 2.0 is this: I feel a niggling internal pressure to create, and from time to time I do something creative. But it’s so easy to procrastinate, although not so easy to type it.

    However, the internet is not only a respository of other people’s creativity, it’s the best and sometimes only route to discovering other outlets (i.e. books, films, music etc.). I still buy books at an economy-supporting rate, even though I don’t have time to read all of them. One of the most income-sapping inventions I’ve come across is Amazon’s “People who bought what you’re about to buy also bought…”. It would be annoying and come across as sinister if it wasn’t so damn useful.

    I think I’m subconsciously planning for the day when I’m either no longer employed or no longer able to walk, THEN I’ll catch up. Except I won’t, because of all the programmes on my Sky+ that I have to watch first. (Douglas Adams was ahead of his time with DGHDA – Sky+ is so easy to programme compared to a VCR. It’s watched a LOT of shows so I didn’t have to. Electric Monk for Christmas…)

  10. I resented the heck out of ‘Why don’t you…?’ I like watching TV and at that time I doubt I was allowed to watch much, so to be made to feel slightly guilty and socially disadvantaged while enjoying a hard fought Saturday morning indulgence was a bit much, I always felt. The ‘Generation Game’ on the other hand, now there was a programme.

    I’m not getting much dedicated news at the moment. I have to say that I would tend to agree with your ex about not really needing to, although I don’t avoid the news because it’s depressing but more because having absorbed the headlines from the news breaks on various music stations, I do find that I can probably predict the points any more in-depth analysis written by any given Brit would make and I find that a bit depressing. I do occassionally watch the Russian news channels if I want a bit of a challenge.

    Plus that is a good place to find stories, mainly international ones, that don’t make it past the continent cut off by fog barrier, that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. Although so are blogs and similar. I probably should have admitted to getting my news through blogs really, although when that question appears on surveys I tend to think the writers mean more dedicated news blogs than the ones I read, which are mainly deeply personal.

    Incidently, I have discovered that I don’t read as much mystery fiction as I used to. I liked it because the sort I read tended to go into the minutaue of random people and professions. I’ve recently been reading one set at a coffee sellers convention – conventions are the new country house party of the mystery world – and there’s a lot of perfectly lovely mundane factoids about coffee selling in the US. Anyway, mostly I find that this probably quite voyeuristic interest in other people’s ordinary lives is actually often much better served by blogs. More unpredicatable, but also more satisfying tiny asides.

    Well, that was a ramble. What I’d actually clicked over to say was how uncomfortable you made me when I realised that actually, because I find the internet a convenient way to interact with people, I probably have been more lazy about doing it in real life than I would have had I been actually forced to leave the house. Trouble is, can’t really regret it. Different set of contacts, true, but not necessarily inferior?

  11. Pingback: I’ve got life – Happy 101 Sweet Friends « Thinking about it…

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