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Françoise Breton - Yannick Le Thiec - 28/11/2011

Some trends and challenges for the 2.0 years

© suphakit73 -

According to the Inria/TNS Sofres survey conducted this year, nearly one French person in two declared they could not do without social networks. Such interest on its own proves what a success the social web is, although success is not without an increase in private data now present in cyberspace. A thorough grasp of interaction tools and controlling one’s web image are becoming major challenges for tomorrow’s web, both for individuals and companies… as well as a challenge for researchers developing social web management tools.

Interview with Fabien Gandon, researcher at Inria and Frédéric Cavazza, social media consultant.

What does ‘social web’ mean for you?

© Frédéric Cavazza

Fred Cavazza : when I talk about the social web or social media, I mean all the platforms, services and technologies that stimulate conversations and social interaction on the web and on mobiles. The web has always been social for me. It began as e-mails and then had personal web pages and then friend sites. However, usage has become extremely intensive since 2005 and the advent of web 2.0, because a network effect has been created. We go there because everyone else is on it. The network’s value rises with the number of users. Its success is based in part on the fact that the French today are more at ease with computing tools and are well equipped in computer and smartphone terms.

Fabien Gandon, Edelweiss projec-team © Inria / Photo S. Tetu - La Company

Fabien Gandon:  I associate the emergence of the social web with the moment the web opened up to writing in the mid-90s with wikis and then forums and blogs, etc. In striving to make producing and publishing content easier, the opening-up process has crystallised social activities around content such as concerts and photographs or around networking. The funny this is that the initial web project at the end of the 1980s planned for reading and writing, but only viewing was deployed at the time for technical and cultural reasons. This means the social web started off as a by-product of the rediscovery of the “writable” web. This was a change in practice. We talked about content consumers in 1990; now we talk about “consum’actors”, a new concept according to which the user is now at all times a potential actor in the process. All web applications enabling action and interaction between users now form the landscape of the social web.

What are the current trends?

Fred Cavazza : I have noticed that the number of content producers is falling over time. The game is more professional, so to speak, with content produced by professionals, semi-professionals or the like. Most web users are involved only in reacting or sharing. Of the 25 million French using social media, only 0.5% actually produce content.

Fabien Gandon : It may also be that non-professional contributions are still increasing, but have been eclipsed by the explosion of professional content, in particular viral marketing productions. Networks such as MySpace and Jamendo provide access to networks specialising in amateurism, in a manner of speaking.

Of the 25 million French using social media, only 0.5% actually produce content.

What do today’s web users expect?

Fred Cavazza : There are still latent needs arising from the increasingly complex presentation of social platforms and how they are integrated in websites as a whole. Services are being developed, for example Neiio, which aims to make the social web simpler by providing help or support. Another latent need concerns tools to control one’s image on networks.

Fabien Gandon : I think users are increasingly aware of the risks arising from exposing information about their private life and now request the right to be forgotten. Some have reacted by unsubscribing from applications or even using the “suicide machine” application to delete their accounts. It is, however, very difficult because today’s web suffers from total recall; each click is memorised... Furthermore, free services are rare and a web user’s privacy can be traded on; for example, the installation of a game can be contingent on accessing the gamer’s GPS.

Fred Cavazza : Privacy is an illusion even without the social web. We can find out a huge amount of things about you using your credit card, public transport pass or mobile telephone, etc. I like to say that we have an information shadow made of all the tracks we leave on the web, but you would need to be very cunning to know how to use them for marketing purposes.

Fabien Gandon : I agree to an extent. However, your bank statement alerts you about what it says about your privacy; you can always decide to pay in cash, for example. On the web, even if you use passwords, each mouse click is stored and analysed. To use your metaphor, everyone should be able to see his or her shadow. This is the absolute condition for a right to be forgotten. Centralising personal data is in itself a danger; it gives applications such as Facebook a monopoly and huge power. It runs against the concept upheld by the W3C of a highly distributed and neutral web. Other applications can be developed that do respect these principles. One example is Diaspora, an open-source platform that competes with Facebook.

we have an information shadow made of all the tracks we leave on the web

What are the technological challenges arising from the social web today?

Fabien Gandon : The major scientific challenge relating to social networks is to analyse the gigantic mass of data they generate. This means efficient tools are needed to manage, use and process them to create services, but also to remove tracks (as dictated by the right to be forgotten), ensure confidentiality and the possibility for everyone to express themselves and interact on the web and ensure simple interfaces. It is now possible with the semantic web tools on which we are working. However, an even greater inter-disciplinary challenge is to build complete applications that make it possible for every party involved to know what is being given and received consciously. This requires progress in computing but also in ergonomics, for example.

The major scientific challenge relating to social networks is to analyse the gigantic mass of data they generate.

Fred Cavazza : It would indeed be interesting for service providers to be able to collect, analyse and automatically interpret all facts and gestures recorded on networks so as to generate value-added services for users, advertisers and retailers as well as web users. Companies like Hunch are working on this in the USA, but I don’t know whether such an approach would be tolerated in France.

What is your vision of the social web in 2020?

Fred Cavazza : That’s a tricky question for a field where the timeframe for change is one or two years! I think we’re heading for a richer and more omnipresent web because everything done on-line will be automatically notified to people that web user has selected… Automatic notifications are beginning on Facebook but I think they will become more widespread. All our actions and gestures will be relayed and stored on the web. This is a pervasive presence through the social web.

Fabien Gandon : All you have to do is look at where the web was in 2001 to see how dangerous an exercise predicting is! I also think that a diffuse web is a clear and inevitable tendency. With the deployment of the Internet of objects each of our actions on an object (e.g. a refrigerator) will be echoed on the web and vice versa (webTV, home automation, enhanced reality, etc.). Our social exchanges will also be routed via these new channels. We can talk about hyper-connection.

 Another tendency will have users working for specific applications known as “human computing”. For example, ESP game and other GWAPs use gaming to have gamers label image bases. Millions of web users could be used by on-line applications, sometimes without knowing it. Once again, the ethics of the issue must be considered…

...a diffuse web is a clear and inevitable tendency

Another challenge for 2020 is not to widen the digital divide between those with the know-how and equipment and those without. The risk here is that with the system growing increasingly complex, it is based on high-tech infrastructures, which will make it increasingly difficult to stick to simple usage.

Is the pervasive expansion of the social web compatible with sustainable development, i.e., mindful of consumption of raw materials and energy?

Fabien Gandon : Web development does not necessarily mean web growth, i.e. a constant increase in networks, exchanges or machines. It can be developed more intelligently by offering fewer connections, but at the right time and in the right format and by not keeping all the data, as is currently the case. Generally speaking, we cannot increase capacity ad infinitum within paying a reasonable environmental and energy cost. People must also avoid saturating! The web’s development will need to take account of psychological, social and cultural aspects.

Keywords: Digital Digital Sciences Fabien Gandon Frédéric Cavazza Social media Social Networks Social web Digital world