Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us

Have you seen this video? One of the most popular on the
web, it’s earned over 9,000,000 views since first posted last year (even
topping Super Bowl commercials aired the same week)!

In the five minute clip Michael Wesch, a professor of
anthropology at Kansas State University, shows how digital text has redefined the medium of text as a whole, and
its connection to underlying ideas and content. Pretty heavy stuff–it certainly
makes you ponder. Frankly, I think it’s one of the most powerful shorts I have
seen on any topic!

Last night, I went to a lecture in which Wesch presented on
the anthropology of YouTube. Last semester, he enlisted students to conduct an
ethnography of the YouTube community, which he perceives as a unique forum for users to exercise their fundamental right to free speech and creativity by
sharing content and opinions with others around the world. Innovations like super easy-to-use hyperlinking and video uploading tools have opened this space to a wide range of people, beyond just the tech geeks active on the internet in its Web 1.0 infancy.

Fascinating! At the conclusion of the lecture, someone in
the audience questioned whether voicing opinions on YouTube is really a
different phenomenon from the Hyde Park Soapbox forums
of the 19th century. Quite a provocative analogy!

I would argue that YouTube is not fundamentally different from Hyde Park, or Times
Square, or any other forum in which “undiscovered” individuals can
communicate with large groups of people. There are, however, a few minor
distinctions. Some relate to the internet as a medium that provides even more
anonymity than a public park in a big city. Those who might not be disposed to
get on a soapbox in Hyde Park, or heckle
someone on a soapbox for that matter, might feel more comfortable joining the
conversation on YouTube.

The other major distinction is geographic scale. You can
reach many more people from many more locations in the world on YouTube than in
Hyde Park. In one example, Wesch described how
users attempting to learn a foreign language often videotape themselves
speaking the new language, and then post to get feedback from native speakers.
Pretty cool.

I’ve commented before
about the internet as a democratizing force and medium for global communication,
and asked how you use the internet to learn about and interact with people
around the world. My question to you now is related, but more theoretical:

Does communicating
via the internet make geographic factors more or less salient?

That is, do you find yourself forgetting about differences
of culture and location when interacting with friends on the internet? Or do you
think about these differences even more?

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