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More On Web 2.0

by Rudy M. Baum
May 10, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 19

A FEW WEEKS ago, I wrote an editorial on the limits of Web 2.0 (C&EN, April 19, page 3). The editorial focused on criticisms of Web 2.0 culture by Jaron Lanier in his book "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto."

The editorial generated an interesting post on "The Chemistry Blog" by Azmanam, "Is Chemistry Incompatible with Web 2.0?" Azmanam pointed out that C&EN and ACS are actively experimenting with many Web 2.0 innovations. C&EN, for example, transformed its "CENtral Science" blog into a portal for a number of focused blogs; the magazine has a Facebook page and regularly tweets about its articles. ACS has introduced the ACS Network.

Azmanam also cited numerous other chemistry-oriented Web 2.0 applications. However, he conceded: "So all of these prove that Web 2.0 has been talked about many times in the context of science. Has it worked? With the exception of blogs, sadly I'm inclined to say no. At least not yet. And even with blogs ... not a lot of academic or industry leaders are prone to blogging."

Azmanam also wrote: "Especially if there are people at the position of editor-in-chief for arguably the top chemistry magazine denouncing the Web 2.0 movement, clearly it has a ways to go before it will be appreciated by all to the point where Web 2.0 is 'taken for granted,' where we don't even realize what we're doing when we post results and opinions via Web 2.0 technologies."

One comment to Azmanam's post from Mat Todd read: "Unsure of the point of the editorial. I don't think anyone who supports the notion of the wisdom of the crowds ever touts it as a panacea, merely a very effective complement to traditional ways of doing things."

First of all, in no place in my original editorial do I "denounce the Web 2.0 movement." As Azmanam correctly noted, C&EN, the ACS Publications Division, and ACS have embraced many elements of Web 2.0. I enjoy reading some blogs (although I have to admit I have no idea how some people find the time to pour as much onto the Web as they do) and have found useful and unique information on them.

I did, however, call into question some aspects of the culture fostered by the Web 2.0 movement. In that, I disagree entirely with Todd's contention. Many Web 2.0 proponents do, indeed, tout it as a "panacea." In fact, they do so in the most adamant terms possible. Traditional journalism is becoming irrelevant, some Web 2.0 proponents suggest, because citizen bloggers are faster on their feet and fundamentally more honest than the tired old "mainstream media."

In "You Are Not a Gadget," Lanier provides numerous examples of overenthusiastic claims for the wisdom of the crowd. For example, he discusses Wikipedia, which its proponents claim to be nearly infallible, at length. He shows that in some realms—oddly enough, popular culture and science, which would seem to have little in common—Wikipedia is pretty reliable, while in others, particularly complex and contentious public policy issues, it is nearly useless.

In science, some would have us believe that Web 2.0 technology should become the new mode of communicating and evaluating science, replacing traditional journals that select papers through the peer review process. That, by the way, is what I think Lanier meant in the passage I quoted that mystified Azmanam and others who commented on his post. Lanier wrote that scientific communities "achieve quality through a cooperative process that includes checks and balances, and ultimately rests on a foundation of good will and 'blind' elitism." What I think Lanier was referring to is anonymous peer review and the fact that science remains a meritocracy.

So, no, I'm not an opponent of all things Web 2.0. I do tire of its proponents insisting that Web 2.0 "changes everything." The same claim was made for the Internet in the 1990s, only more from a business model point of view. It was not true then—the burst of the tech bubble in 2000 made that abundantly clear—and it's not true now.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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