The Social Web: Evolution, Power and Challenges


The Emergence of internet revolutionized how people interact. Many people have virtual lives on the internet. The internet came into existence as a medium for sharing information of business and academic value. In time, the internet grew to become a network that fosters all types of human interactions. One aspect of this impact is the social web. This paper examines the global impact of the social web as a platform for human interaction. It looks at how this interaction affects society and human life in general.

Evolution of the Social Web

The invention of the web arose from the need for a social experience in the performance of duty. The need to share information between professionals and researchers led to the creation of a platform to exchange this information (Dixon, 1999). The first networks that facilitated collaboration did not have the versatility of the internet, as we know it today.

Note. From Evolution of Websites, 2009, Peergloble Technology.
Note. From Evolution of Websites, 2009, Peergloble Technology.

Email was arguable the first truly social expression of the social web (Bernoff & Li, 2008). The use of emails date back to the seventies, but the mass adoption of email came about in the nineties. In the late eighties and the early nineties, bulletin boards, basic static websites, and the first generation of interactive websites started appearing (Peerglobe Technology Inc, 2009). Improvements in telecommunication technologies made it possible for people to connect and participate in collaborative ventures in virtual platforms.

Early websites were static in nature. They only allowed people to view information but there was no way of interacting with the publisher. This paved the way for dynamic websites, which allowed increasing interaction between publishers and users. The third stage in the development of the social web was the creation of communities of users interacting not just with the publishers, but also with other member of the community (Owyang, 2009). In the late nineties, blogging became an integral part of the social web. Blogs gave any interested users the ability to publish information online.

The Architecture of the Social Web

The architecture of the social web is organic. The fundamental technologies that support the social web are the same as those that support the entire internet. However, the social web comes from the uniqueness of human needs and human interaction. In this sense, the fundamental architecture of the social web is human relationships, and not technology. Technology provides the platform for the development of the social web but human interaction defines the application of technology.

The hardware platform supporting social web is not separate from the hardware that supports the rest of the web. In fact, people use the same hardware for business purposes and for online social expression. On the software side, there is a separation between the social web and the rest of the web. Some companies do not allow their employees to access social networking sites during office hours. However, there is increasing blurring of the separation between the social web and the rest of the web because consumers rely on the social web to carry out market research and other business functions.

Many companies have a social presence either on social networking sites or in their own platforms (Bernoff & Li, 2008). Companies such as Microsoft have user forums that allow users of Microsoft products to interact with one another based on their user experiences.

Media on the Social Web

The social web relies on various types of media. The basic media used in the social web is text. The use of text is very popular with online users because of the ease of creating textual communication (Mather, 2012). While other forms of media are becoming more popular, text is not declining in relevance. Twitter survives on text only as the medium of communication between different people. Facebook status updates are also text based. The fact that these two social networking sites have a central place for text shows the enduring importance of text on the social web.

Secondly, the use of pictures to communicate is becoming a standard practice in social networking. Sites like Pinterest show that photos are becoming more important in the social web. Twitter and Facebook support photos too. The third media driving the social web is video. Sharing of videos is becoming an important part of the social web. The success of YouTube shows how video is growing in importance in the social web (Bernoff & Li, 2008). The use of videos is still challenging for many web-surfers because videos need bigger bandwidth, hence slow internet speeds may reduce the overall user experience.

Power of the Social Web

The social web is becoming an influential part of human society. The social web gives individuals unprecedented power to influence societies in ways that only powerful corporations managed to do in the past. No one has full control of any narrative anymore, because different people can share their views on the same matter with the same audience. To appreciate the power of the social web, it is important to consider the impact of the social web on e-commerce, politics, and advocacy.

E-commerce was nonexistent two decades ago. Currently, any business that does not have an online presence is danger of extinction. In addition, some businesses exist only because of the web. Google is now one of the largest companies on earth. This company only exists because of the internet. In the area of e-commerce, the impact of the social web arises from the growing number of users who make use of their online social connections to collect information before making purchases (Owyang, 2009). Online shoppers read product reviews as they work towards making a purchase. Sites like eBay and Amazon picked on these trends early in their existence. They provided users with the opportunity to write unsolicited product reviews. The result is that they now have very comprehensive reviews created at no cost to them.

These reviews are highly valued by online shoppers. For companies with good online product reviews made by actual users, the promotion costs saved is very high. In the same vein, consumers can share negative experiences relating to the use of certain products or services. This can damage the brand reputation of any company overnight (Thomas, 2011). Companies no longer have control over their reputation by controlling the narrative consumers receive. Rather, consumers have control over what their friends hear and think about a product.

Politics is also feeling the effects of the social web. The Barack Obama presidential campaign in 2008 harnessed the power of the social web to raise support and to mobilize voters to support him. The role played by social web was very important especially in reaching the younger voters. During the Arab spring, social media provided the communication platforms needed to organize demonstrations. This was clearer in Egypt, which succeeded in toppling the then president. Some countries in the Arab belt tried to limit access to social networking websites without much success. The social web is an effective tool in promoting political change.

The third expression of the power of the social web is in social action. The social web makes it possible for people to organize protests, and demonstrations to press for certain issues (Bernoff & Li, 2008). A common example of a community of people who organized themselves for a cause was the issue involving the discontinuation of the CBS television series, Jericho. Jericho told the story of a community trying to reorganize their lives after a nuclear bomb wiped out a nearby city. CBS took the decision to discontinue the show after its ratings plunged due to a change in scheduling (Bernoff & Li, 2008). The fans of the series banded together in the online forum created by CBS for Jericho fans and started sending packed peanuts to the producer that made the decision to stop the show. They chose peanuts because one of the main actors in the show liked to use the expletive, “nuts”. The producer received twenty tons of nuts as a result (Bernoff & Li, 2008). The station put the show back on air.

These examples demonstrate the power of the social web. The social web allows virtual communities to congregate and take action on certain issues. This power has never existed in its current magnitude. The thought that a single individual can influence the course of issues through the web at a minimal cost is overwhelming.

Challenges Facing the Social Web

Several challenges affect the efficacy of the social web. The social web is a historical social experiment that continues to grow in unpredictable ways. New issues will keep emerging as long as human relationships affect how the social web grows and operates. The main challenges facing the social web are handling of online identities, the question of anonymity, online security, censorship, and legal issues.

Currently, people have multiple identities in various online platforms. Some of them maintain separate identities in the same social networking sites, just as people have different email addresses for various reasons (Owyang, 2009). The problem of multiple identities is that it leads to a reduced user experience in the social web. If a person fragments his identity into a professional identity, a social identity, and a maybe a religious one, then all the people that interact with him can never benefit from the views of the unified person. This problem also extends into the issue of anonymity. Online anonymity robs other users of the full value of a person’s communication. For instance, knowing that a certain comment made in a blog post came from a medical doctor may make it more valuable to users rather than if the doctor uses an anonymous identity.

Online security is also becoming a problem. It is becoming easier to profile individuals based on their activities on the social web. This makes it easy to make them targets for discrimination, extortion, and other criminal activity. On the other hand, cyber criminals can steal someone’s online identity by creating fake online accounts and using them to commit crimes. Other threats include spreading of viruses and other malware that can harm the social web infrastructure.

The social web is also facing increasing risk of censorship especially in authoritarian states. In countries such as China, the government keenly monitors activities on the social web, and arrest people found to criticize the government in the social web. There are strict rules relating to the use of the social web in the country. In fact, the country has its local version of Twitter named Weibo to allow it to control discussions taking place in the social web.

The final challenge facing the social web is legal oversight. The nature of the social web is that members any social web outlet are citizens of various countries. The result of this is that if a member commits a crime, it is impossible to institute legal proceedings against the person. In some cases, an issue may qualify as a crime against someone in one country, while it is not a crime in the aggressor’s country. The issue of legal jurisdiction involving issues such as breach of copyright, libel, identity theft among others will remain a key problem with the social web.

The Future of the Social Web

The future of the social web is very difficult to predict. YouTube and Facebook, which are the most influential players in the social web, are less than ten years old (O’Dell, 2012). Thanks to Moore’s law, it is almost impossible to predict the direction the social web will take (Weichmann, 2009). However, some broad issues expected to define the social web include the growth and spread of more online communities, the rise of social TV, and the defragmentation of websites.

Note. From Social Web 1, 13 April 2012, J. O’Dell
Note. From Social Web 1, 13 April 2012, J. O’Dell

Just as people identify communities to relate to based on their interests, more and more people will join the social web to get access to likeminded communities. The growth of new niche communities will continue online. Some old communities will die out because of age, changing interests, or simply advances in technology.

Already, mobile devices are becoming a force that will determine the future of the internet (Quantcast, 2009). In addition, social networking is becoming a part of television with people twitting as their favorite programs run. The confluence of these two forces is the social TV (Bernoff & Li, 2008). The internet will create unique communities of internet television viewers brought together by a common interest in the program.

From Growth in Mobile Web Consumption, 2009, Quantcast.
Note. From Growth in Mobile Web Consumption, 2009, Quantcast.

Thirdly, to reach niche markets or specific customer groups, companies will defragment their websites to reach unique user communities. Many companies are already realizing that there is a need to separate their corporate website from their blog. Some companies have separate websites for user communities. This trend will inform the future of the social web.

Conclusions

The conclusions drawn from the discussions presented in this paper are as follows. The social web organizes itself around the patterns of human interaction. This means that the social web operates along the general rules that govern human interaction in offline settings. Secondly, the future of the social web will define future technology. As the providers of social web technologies move to answer consumer needs relating to social experiences online, they will allow these needs to define the technologies. On the other hand, technology will play an influential part in the future of the social web. Technological breakthroughs such as the emergence of smart phones inevitably affected the social web. People will find new ways of using emerging technologies in the social web. Fourthly, there is a need to resolve the question of multiple online identities. It is important for all technology providers to find a way of using the same identity per user within their services. Some attempts such as Facebook login and Google profiles exist, but their scale is not sufficient to answer the existing need.

References

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