Thursday, January 31, 2008

Do Internet Uprisings Matter?

The Internet has long been viewed by political activists as a promising vehicle for organizing protests and other forms of collective action. They must be looking on with glee at recent events. Consider...

  • MySpace users have organized thousands of people to participate in "International Delete Your MySpace Account Day" as a show of protest against the "glitchy pages" and never-ending amounts of spam that define the site in its present incarnation.

  • Digg users mobilized last week to protest a change in Digg's algorithm which would have made it more difficult to get a submitted story on Digg's front page.

  • Ebay sellers are, even at this very minute, trying to stage a "mass exodus" of what they are calling "FeeBay", demonstrating their outrage over the company's new policy of lowering fees to list an item on the auction site, but raising the fees for when an item is actually sold.

  • Facebook users recently revolted against the website's new advertising system known as Beacon, which became controversial for broadcasting Facebook users' purchases on outside websites to all of their Facebook friends.

What the heck is going on?

Internet uprisings are nothing new and have been chronicled since the Web's earliest days. What is new is the prominence with which these uprisings are starting to occur. Rather than computer programmers and hackers engaging in protest through technical means, ordinary people are becoming far more emboldened. One big question is why?

As Web 2.0 sites have become an extraordinarily popular forum, people have quite naturally begun to perceive their content as their own. But remember that "MySpace" is really "TheirSpace" - the company still creates and controls the rules of the environment. This often sets their private commercial interests at odds with those of the users, who increasingly think of the environment (or at least their personal pages and content) as their own. Conflict is, as a result, inevitable as these interests clash.

Some may argue that these recent uprisings don't ultimately matter too much; that they are basically symbolic. After all, MySpace is still the largest social-networking site, Digg has kept the change to its algorithm, EBay remains obstinate in its new pricing structure, and Facebook kept the Beacon advertising system in place (although it did grant users the ability to opt-out).

How consequential these uprisings turn out to be has not yet been determined. However, the shift in public perceptions over the question of ownership - and what really amounts to property rights - in cyberspace, may have even longer-term effects.


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