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Making the Web work for us

Web 2.0 with its social networks and huge broadband speeds and capacities, combined with mobile telephony reveals the deep contradictions in what some still believe is an impregnable system.

Globalised corporate capitalism needs to supersede itself technologically at break-neck speed in order for companies to make a profit. The logic of the new technologies means that they need more and more customers.

But the profit-making aspect is lost in the realms of speculation. Like the financial bubble that broke in 2008, the social network extravaganza is full of “known unknowns” in terms of financial viability.

Facebook claims that one in 12 people on the planet actively use its site, just five-and-a-half years after its founders Mark Zuckerberg and fellow students at Harvard University set it up. Flickr, the photo uploading and sharing website, also launched in 2004, now hosts 35 million members and stores over 4 billion images.

Facebook is banned in China and Pakistan with their joint population of 1.5 billion. But, along with other the micro-blog sites, Twitter, search engine Google and email systems have been taking even poorer countries in Africa and Asia by storm. Twitter, which gets 300,000 daily new sign-ups each day, is currently expanding into a custom data centre to provide its members with a better service.

But it seems that in terms of popularity even in this area, the market has its limits. While in Africa and Asia the numbers are rising more rapidly than elsewhere and Twitter is also growing at a staggering pace, the actual rate of increase, for Facebook at least, is going down.

Facebook increased from 300 million users to 400 million in just one month. But reaching 500 million took five months. The number of people with access to computers and mobile phones required to be active on social networks is not infinite.

And there is a techno-disconnect between social networks and mobile networks, according to technology experts. They suggest a new generation of sites on Web 2.0 is now necessary to avoid a repeat of the “post-dotcom exhaustion of 2002”, but so far no-one really knows what this means in practice.

The other question being asked is are these giant network sites able to make money for their owners? Are they valid business model? Most people think not. Even with half a billion users, Facebook is unlikely to earn its forecast revenues, the Financial Times suggests.

Naturally, there are those who highlight the dark sides of social networking and how it can be used for surveillance and criminal activities. The geo-app Foursquare, for example, is said to be a “stalker’s dream”.

Like all technologies, social and image networking can be used for bad ends. But, by breaking down barriers of time and space, it has expanded human connectivity. Facilitating virtually free communication between people from close neighbours to others in far flung corners of the globe, its revolutionary potential remains vast.

Even the church is attempting to revive itself by using Twitter to take Holy Communion and even get married. Trinity Church in New York’s Wall Street used Twitter to update its faithful with the Easter passion play, tweeting messages like “passionplay via @-Jesus Christ: Father forgive them, they know not what they do”.

The growing movement against the impact of the global economic and political crisis also needs to see the light. While social networking has been used to organise and even challenge the status quo, as in Iran, its political possibilities remain largely under-used. Turning the communication technologies developed by capitalism against the system of profit itself is key to our very own emanicipation.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
26 July 2010

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