Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

A Cultural and Political Economy of Web 2.0

Robert Gehl

Major Professor: Hugh Gusterson

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, Timothy Gibson

The Hub (SUB II), 3
April 22, 2010, 04:30 AM to 05:30 AM


In this dissertation, I explore Web 2.0, an umbrella term for Web-based software and services such as blogs, wikis, social networking, and media sharing sites. This wide range of Web sites is complex, but is tied together by one key feature: to some degree, the users  of these sites and services are expected to produce the content included in them. That is, users write and comment upon blogs, produce the material in wikis, make connections with one another in social networks, and produce videos in media sharing sites. This has two implications. On the one hand, the increase of user-led media production has led to proclamations that mass media, hierarchy, and authority are dead, and that we are entering into a time of democratic media production. On the other hand, this mode of media production relies on users to supply what was traditionally paid labor. In this dissertation, I explore the popular media discourses which have defined Web 2.0 as a progressive, democratic development in media production. I consider the pleasures that users derive from these sites. I then examine the technical structure of Web 2.0. Despite the arguments that present Web 2.0 as a mass appropriation of the means of media production, I have found that Web 2.0 site owners have been able to exploit users' desires to create content and control media production. Site owners do this by deploying a dichotomous structure. In a typical Web 2.0 site, there is a surface, where users are free to produce content and make affective connections, and there is a hidden depth, where new media capitalists convert this content into exchange-values. Web 2.0 sites seek to hide exploitation of free user labor by limiting access to this depth. This dichotomous structure is made clearer if it is compared to the one Web 2.0 site where users have largely taken control of the products of their labor: Wikipedia. Unlike many other sites, Wikipedia allows users to see into and determine the legal, technical, and cultural depths of that site. I conclude by pointing to the different cultural formations made possible by eliminating the barrier between surface and depth in Web software architecture.

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