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Internet Galaxy 3: Read/Write Web

Originally posted 12/0/08 on Eduspaces during H806.

The read/write web is an example of what Castells calls a new socio-technical pattern formed by the interaction between internet technologies and the uses to which we humans collectively put them.Until the early 1990s the internet was necessarily read/write in nature because its content consisted largely of bulletin boards, newsgroups and text files, and to a large extent the readers of this content were also its authors. But with the explosion of the world wide web the character of the net changed in three important ways:

  • It became a vast library of public information presented via millions of more-or-less media rich websites which required some technical knowledge to build and host;
  • It became a mass medium – a medium which although interactive was one in which most users were readers (in the widest sense) rather than authors; and
  • The web opened the way to e-commerce, with many websites functioning as digital shopfronts and much content devoted to advertising. The marketeers who drove this commercialisation process inevitably saw users more as consumers than active participants.

Although this was certainly not what Tim Berners-Lee intended when he developed the language, protocols and software of the web in the early 90s, all three of these changes tended to make the internet more of a read-only and less of a read/write domain.

But in the following decade the net entered another phase of its evolution. Growing from roots in the internet’s virtual communitarian and hacker cultures, and responding to users’ desire to communicate and express themselves online, new ‘social web’ functionalities developed to enable users to upload and share, to converse with each other, to self-publish and to comment. The first commercial weblog application, designed to make it easy for anyone with a computer and internet connection to write web pages, and invite others to comment, was written in 1999; and in the 9 years since then there has been a self-publishing revolution, with the number of blogs worldwide now thought to be at least 200 million (see Blog Herald 2008/02/11). At the same time the medium has bifurcated into dozens of separate genres – from the book draft blog (Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail started life as a blog), thru newspaper blogs and the professional or political commentary blog, to blog as journal or journal-expose (remember Belle du Jour?) to blog as semi-private reflection, to photoblog (Flickr is essentially a collective photoblog), to moblogs and microblogs like Facebook and Twitter which focus on the capture of ephemera with very frequent updates via WAP or SMS.Despite their very different flavours, each of these blog genres is essentially about the same thing: the creation of a fluid, interactive private/public space where the joy of authorship and self-publication meets the thrill of online conversation and critique. As Dan Gilmore says in his excellent book We the Media :

Many to many, few to few. The blog is the medium of both, and all. Weblogs … are expanding into the space between email and the Web, and could well be the missing link in the communications chain. To date they’re the closest we’ve come to realising the original read/write promise of the Web .. the first tool to make it easy to publish online. (Gilmore, 2006).


Gillmore, D, 2006, We the Media: Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people, p28 (paperback), O’Reilly, Sebastopol CA. Also available as an e-book at

One Comment
  1. Sally permalink

    Hi John
    I enjoyed reading some of this stuff and plan to read more later. You might be interested in an article we published in Soundings on ‘mining the wealth of online communities’. It is not online so I will email it to you by ordinary email.
    S x

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