Shifting media imaginaries of the Web
First Monday

Shifting media imaginaries of the Web by Frederik Lesage and Louis Rinfret

This exploratory paper sets out a conceptual model for investigating how media imaginaries of the Web shape its design and use over time. We draw from the work of scholars who have devised models for the study of techno-social imaginaries of information and communication technologies, including Patrice Flichy and Robin Mansell. Based on these works, we devise a case study of contrasting media imaginaries of the Web by drawing on textual analysis of statements made by Tim Berners-Lee over more than two decades. Through our analysis of these statements, we show how differing views on the role of creativity — and how it is represented by people and technologies ‘behind the screen’ and ‘in front of the screen’ — lead to competing visions of the past, present, and future of the Web. We conclude with suggestions for some future research questions emerging from this study.


1. Changing imaginaries of information and communication technologies
2. Methodological approach for this paper
3. An early vision for the Web
4. The Semantic Web
5. The Web 2.0 wave
6. The resolution or circumvention of contrasts between media imaginaries?
Conclusion: A program for future study




More than two decades since its launch, individuals and organisations have adopted the World Wide Web (Web) on a global scale. Many are seeking to improve the ways we access the Web and its related technical and social processes as a key means of improving how we create, access, and share information through the Internet.

But how does one study a media object as complex as the Web? The problem is that media like the Web do not constitute a single, stable object. Rather, such entanglements of technological processes and media practices are ‘dynamic in time’ and therefore their characterization as a fixed and ‘knowable’ entity is itself problematic. Part of the solution involves taking an approach that analyses the cultural biography of things (Kopytoff, 1986; Lesage, 2013b) or ‘life cycles of media imaginaries’ (Natale and Balbi, 2014). Such approaches provide the means for examining how changing social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics shape our understanding of media objects like the Web.

Gaining a more detailed understanding of the ways in which different stakeholders decide how to design and use the Web’s social and technological processes requires an understanding of the Web’s social and technical history. It is in trying to formulate such a history that we encounter the main challenge addressed in this paper. Our paper is exploratory in nature as we begin a reflection on how one might go about studying the circulation of media imaginaries. In doing so we put forward a framework that can be reused and iterated to form a roadmap for future research. The first sections of this paper lay out a conceptual framework for mapping the trajectories of media imaginaries for the Web. In these sections, we argue that one of the key aspects of these media imaginaries of the Web entails the articulation of divisions between function and use — what Robin Mansell (2012) refers to as ‘behind the screen’ and ‘in front of the screen’. Drawing from this conceptual framework, we demonstrate how competing imaginaries of the Web articulate such distinctions with a focus on the Semantic Web (also known as Web 3.0) and Web 2.0. We conclude with a set of questions for future research based on insights gained from our research.



1. Changing imaginaries of information and communication technologies

1.1. Social and technological imaginaries

The concept of social imaginary is used as a construct for understanding how shared meanings circulate among different groups and how they develop over time (see, for example, B. Anderson, 1983; Appadurai, 1996). Charles Taylor, for example, argues that the social imaginary that shaped contemporary Western moral order was:

“first just an ‘idea’ in the minds of some influential thinkers, but it would later come to shape the social imaginary of a larger strata, and then eventually whole societies.” [1]

Shared meanings also inform the early designs of information technologies, enabling and constraining their creation while also sketching an outline for the broader social and technical imaginary that constitutes its potential future.

Social scientists have undertaken numerous investigations into the social imaginary of information and communication technologies, including Carolyn Marvin (1988), Armand Mattelart (2003), and Lisa Gitelman (2006), among others. Research approaches to the study of these technologies include traditions like those of the technological sublime based on the work of Leo Marx (1964; see also Mosco, 2004) and those of media archaeology inspired by the likes of Friedrich Kittler (1999). Such scholars have turned to the study of techno-social imaginaries of media as a way to gain insights into the past, present, and future of information and communication technologies and how they operate as sites for the realization of multiple potentialities, of diverse ideals and of various yet contingent formations of relations of power. The imaginaries that have and continue to fuel the development of media technologies, like the Web and their related practices, are not innocuous.

How people describe and classify the Web, be they engineers or everyday users, have very real implications for how these same individuals understand its significance and therefore how they believe its design and use should develop. Imaginaries shape and are shaped along trajectories that follow the life cycle of a technology. Just as technical aspects may change as a technology moves from prototype, to innovation, familiar tool, and outdated relic, how people imagine a technology’s place within social and cultural contexts may change over time. But it should also be noted that such developments do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a ‘process of becoming’ [2] that is continually remediated through the object’s entanglement with other social, cultural, and technological developments.

Our approach in this paper to the study of the imaginary of the Web draws heavily from models of media imaginaries of the Internet as developed by Patrice Flichy and Robin Mansell. By combining key concepts from their individual works, we examine the ways in which different and contrasting trajectories of the Web shape its development.

1.2. Utopian and ideological media imaginaries

For Patrice Flichy, the life cycles of information and communication technologies are 1) non-linear and the product of many divergent contributions; 2) innovations are ‘a fundamentally collective activity’ [3], and finally, 3) the myths and ideological frames of reference that surround these technologies — their imaginaries — are an essential resource for their development over time. Flichy conceptualizes the reality of technologies like the Internet as an ongoing process mediated by two distinct ‘poles of the social imaginaire’ — utopia and ideology. Both poles work in a dialectic: “[ideology] trying to maintain social order and [utopia] trying to disrupt it.” [4]. Both the utopian and the ideological shape the processes of design, regulation, and consumption/use that constitute part of a technology’s successful development and diffusion. His framework draws from art historian Michael Baxandall’s (1985) work on artistic intentionality in order to conceive how people choose frames of reference to help them decide how a particular innovation should be designed and used — what Baxandall describes as a way to capture the terms of the problem and cultural context. When applied to information and communication technologies, Flichy distinguishes between the ‘frame of functioning’ — the ‘body of knowledge and know-how mobilized and mobilizable in a technological activity’ [5] — and the ‘frame of use’ — the ‘social activities proposed by the technology, the integrated routines of daily life, sets of social practices, kinds of people, places and situations connected to the technical artifact’.

For Flichy, the early history of the Internet is an example of how computer scientists and academics experiment with various frames of functioning and frames of use as part of a utopian ideal of a free and autonomous academic commons that produces a technological object before it is subsequently taken-up by the general public [6]. In order to attain such a broad appeal, the Internet’s utopian ideals went through a series of distancing reinterpretations, first by counterculture groups like members of the WELL and later entrepreneurial populists such as the editors of Wired. These new intermediaries selectively masked elements of utopian ideals built into the functioning of the Internet by focussing on new frames of use for the infrastructure [7] resulting in a pronounced split from the 1990s onwards between those who designed and those who used the Internet.

Flichy’s model conceptualizes a relatively cyclical trajectory for media imaginaries: new utopian visions give rise to experimentations that challenge the established order. For these experimentations to become dominant technological forms, they must first be legitimized and mobilized as part of a newly established ideological vision that masks certain aspects of an earlier utopian vision. This model provides a compelling way to analyze how the design and adoption of new technologies are dependent upon the mediation of ideals associated with these technologies. The model’s cyclical approach focuses on the compromises involved in the ideological implementation of technological creation for a large, stable technological order to the detriment of alternative imaginaries and their related technological structures. While the model addresses how alternatives might exist as boundary objects (for more on the concept of boundary objects see Star, 2010), these objects remain peripheral technologies rather than alternatives that exist in contrast to, or in tandem with, the dominant order. Flichy acknowledges that a technology’s path towards development and diffusion ‘consists of an abundance of possibilities’ [8], but his conceptual model seems to favour a compromised resolution or consolidation through frames of use rather than a contingent or asymmetrical ‘stalemate’ between different incompatible possibilities of design and/or use.

1.3. Dominant and alternative media imaginaries

Robin Mansell’s work on imagining the Internet is also concerned with the exercise of power through media imaginaries for the design, regulation, and use of information and communication technologies. Drawing from Steven Lukes, she presents a multifaceted conceptualization of ideology as one that ‘emerges from the intersection of interests of different stakeholders’ [9] that is rather compatible with Flichy’s approach. For Mansell, however, highly complex information and communication systems like the Internet generate communication paradoxes. Such paradoxes require an epistemological approach that allows for ‘either/or as well as for the dialectical epistemology of both/and’ relationships [10]. The key paradox in the case of the Internet is an information paradox fostered by information society discourses: on the one hand, information represents an essential source of value for the information society, while on the other hand, the scarcity of such a resource must be artificiality created in order to maintain its exchange value. Mediation between technological processes and social practices take place ‘behind the screen’ and ‘in front of the screen’. Unlike Flichy’s frames of function and frames of use, however, these frames remain in a constant dialectic, shifting between dominant and alternative positions. For example: researchers and private firms who collaborate to develop a digital platform have incompatible visions for how media should enable and constrain the circulation of information among different stakeholders [11]. In this case, traditional academic notions of information commons for designing and using the platform persist among some collaborators in contrast to the dominant ‘information society’ imaginary of information scarcity. For the purposes of this paper, Mansell’s model emphasises how different media imaginaries co-exist in contingent yet dialectical relationships that are not necessarily working towards resolution or compromise but that nevertheless present the same technology in ways that can be incompatible, divergent, or even adversarial. In contrast to Flichy, this approach highlights the relational character of imaginaries — how their existence is based on continuing differentiations with other imaginaries, no matter how asymmetrical such relationships may be.

We interpret the nuanced distinction between these perspectives as one that focuses on mediation as compromise and one that focuses on paradoxical or alternative mediations between imaginaries. But we also wish to underline the similar distinctions both scholars make with regards to the difference between aspects of the design of digital media and aspects of the use of digital media, what Flichy refers to as ‘frame of function’ and ‘frame of use’ and what Mansell refers to as ‘behind the screen’ and ‘in front of the screen’. The following section develops one way that this distinction is itself necessarily entangled with aspects of media imaginaries, specifically discourses of creativity.

1.4. Excavating the articulation of creativity in the Internet imaginary as a division between function and use

Despite the undeniably central role of research communities to the development of the Internet, scholarship on the culture of early Internet designers suggests that this ‘invisible college’ included contributors who were heavily influenced by the ‘anticonformist and antiauthoritarian climate of West Coast universities in the late 1970s’ [12] and who co-mingled with a number of counterculture and artistic influences that predated online communities, like the WELL. Some even traced deep exchanges between cybernetic theory, computer engineering, counter culture, and avant-garde movements to as early as the late 1950s [13]. Over the following decades, notions of creativity, individual expression, and networked computing technology became closely intertwined in various media imaginaries of the Internet. Such influences were in evidence in actions pertaining to copyright, as articulated by Richard Stallman and the Copyleft movement.

It should be noted that there existed many competing definitions of ‘creativity’. It does not operate as something inherent to one particular discipline or practice but as part of a discursive construction of value that is inherently entangled into the ways in which contemporary imaginaries make distinctions between subjectivities of design and subjectivities of use for digital media (Lesage, 2013a). Influential figures in cybernetics and computer science, like Norbert Wiener and J.C.R. Licklider respectively, were strong proponents of a culture of do-it-yourself ingenuity. Their self-reliant pragmatism seemed to tinge notions of creativity among cyberculture enthusiasts. The shared understanding of information as part of intellectual commons but also an appeal to practicality could not extricated from broader social imaginary of creativity that was also prevalent in artistic movements and counterculture communes. Do-it-yourself creativity became an important discourse throughout the life trajectory of the Internet and acted as a major part of the media imaginary that enabled its adoption by the general population:

“The majority of the population who earned their living outside the information economy were also capable of being cultural producers. For them, creativity was what happened when they were playing outside work. In the late 1990s, the rapid spread of the Net amplified the social impact of this do-it-yourself attitude.” [14]

Although early Internet pioneers claimed to be at the vanguard of the defence of the creative spirit until the mid-1990s, researchers like Richard Barbrook demonstrated how this mantle of creativity was soon adopted by others with considerably different interests: ‘within a decade, it was big business that was leading the rush to build a global participatory media system’ [15].

As we intend to show, this transformation can be observed in the case of the Web. One of the key facets for understanding the dynamics that led to these developments was the struggle for control over the dominant way in which we imagined the distinction and dynamic between the design and use of the Web — how the ordering of ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ the screen, of ‘functioning’ and ‘use’ (and the responsibilities and power that stem from such distinctions) arose.



2. Methodological approach for this paper

While a comprehensive examination of such a transformation requires a detailed discussion that extends well beyond the scope of what is possible in a paper of this length, the following account represents a preliminary examination of this transformation through a focused account of one aspect of the imaginaries of the Web.

In this paper, we focus on statements by one person — Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web — as a means of mapping out trajectories of media imaginaries for the Web. Our approach to the selection of the author and texts for this paper involved an initial literature review of World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) writings through which we identified members of the W3C who were most actively involved in the promotion of Web technologies, including Phil Archer, Harry Halpin, Sandro Hawke, Ivan Herman, Jeff Jaffe, Ralph Swick, and Tim Berners-Lee. The initial review of the works by these authors suggested that, by far, Berners-Lee represented one of the most vocal and visible representatives of the Web. A convenience sample of 54 texts was selected from a corpus of his own writings followed by a similar amount of secondary texts. Although we started by examining a broader number of collaborators, we decided to focus on Berners-Lee as a means of simplifying the investigation and because of the sheer quantity of public statements available both in writing and in video, including materials in which Tim Berners-Lee was credited as an author or co-author as well as news reports that quoted him directly or indirectly between 1988 and 2014. Searches were performed on the W3C Web site ( as well as on the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library ( and more broadly on the Web using Google. We did not discriminate between peer-reviewed publications and other types as our goal was to understand how these statements articulated a media imaginary for the Web over a period of about two decades.

To be sure, our study should not be characterized as charting the biographical account of Tim Berners-Lee’s career or his personal state of mind with regards to the Web so much as a biographical account of competing media imaginaries of the Web as seen, in particular, through a corpus of texts in which Tim Berners-Lee is a significant protagonist. As an analytical device, the above conceptual framework attempts to move beyond ascribing to an individual a specific intent and instead tries to trace the trajectories of media imaginaries of the Web over time, to explore exactly how these changing imaginaries occupy dominant or alternative positions by examining how they articulate contrasts between function and use. Drawing from thematic analytical approaches similar to those used by Flichy [16], the texts are submitted to a close reading with a view of identifying thematic patterns related to the media imaginaries of the Web. Individual statements pertaining to creativity or creative subjects were identified, thematically coded, and compared using the conceptual framework discussed above. Tertiary texts pertaining to the history of the Web, particularly pertaining to Web 2.0 (discussed below) were used to supplement the analysis. Rather than stable themes, we were analysing the Web’s process of becoming by thematically charting its changing media imaginaries that were in dynamic relations to each other, moving closer and further away over time.



3. An early vision for the Web

The original proposal for the World Wide Web was presented as a solution for dealing with lost information at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN or Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal in March 1989 while at CERN (Berners-Lee, 1989). Although Berners-Lee was credited with creating the software system, this proposal, for which the purpose was to obtain internal funding for the project, was co-authored with his colleague Robert Cailliau (who later created the first Web browser for the Macintosh operating system, MacWWW). The ideas that underpinned the proposal were based on Berners-Lee’s own experiences developing hypertext systems as well as the foundational work on the topic by others, such as Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson (Hall, 2011).

The aim of this original proposal was to introduce a distributed hypertext system to address the issue of “loss of information about complex evolving systems”. The system was positioned as a “more flexible way to access information” relative to extant solutions, comparing existing systems as structured — organized in hierarchical fashion. He proposed that this solution “does not constrain the way people will communicate, and share information, equipment and software across groups.”

The problem of information retrieval as identified by the authors was not one that was limited to CERN: “The problems of information loss may be particularly acute at CERN, but in this case [...], CERN is a model in miniature of the rest of world in a few years’ time.”

This early utopian vision was based on a clear division between function and use: engineers and computer scientists creating invisible and orderly standards for people working in front of the screen who in turn, through their creativity and initiative, create interesting tools and content based on these standards. A number of incumbent data services were in place well before the advent of the World Wide Web. These services provided competing alternatives for accessing and sharing digitally encoded information over the Internet. But the Web’s particular design was consistent with the Internet’s established design culture in which an invisible college of researchers developed and implemented core design principles. The proposal reiterated discourses of pragmatic openness and universality consistent with Internet history:

“We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities.” (Berners-Lee, 1989)

In later texts, the reasons for the Web’s success were modestly attributed in part to the pragmatic approach of emphasizing ‘usefulness’ over other values. Berners-Lee alluded to a requirement for a network effect to achieve this universality when he explained that:

“The result should be sufficiently attractive to use it that the information contained would grow past a critical threshold, so that the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use.” (Berners-Lee, 1989)

Themes of order, active users, or democratic and distributed evolution — in terms of end user content input but also in terms of technology development — appeared consistently in our review of Berners-Lee’s articles. The overall design approach was presented as a pragmatic one. It also entailed a conceptual stacking in which objects, like Web browsers, were distinct applications of the Web, that in turn was a distinct application of the Internet. Technologies were “combined from various sources: for example, a browser from one source with a database from another” that would interoperate over the Web. As the Web outgrew the boundaries of CERN, it was increasingly framed as a grassroots initiative emphasising individual creativity and the active participation of its users:

“The whole spread of the Web happened not because of a decision and a mandate from any authority, but because a whole bunch of people across the ’Net picked it up and brought up Web clients and servers, it actually happened. The actual explosion of creativity, and the coming into being of the Web was the result of thousands of individuals playing a small part. In the first couple of years, often this was not for a direct gain, but because they had an inkling that it was the right way to go, and a gleam of an exciting future.” (Berners-Lee, 1998)

The utopian media imaginary that emerged from these early statements was one that united an orderly and efficient technology behind the screen with a bottom-up, grassroots involvement of users, celebrating individual ingenuity and initiative. There was recognition of the efforts of dedicated groups of individuals, who, in the pre-Web and early phases of the Web, were largely scholars and researchers. These groups helped spawn the basic foundations of the Web in creating standards that enabled users to create interesting tools and content through their individual creative contributions. The division was apparent in Berners-Lee’s writings, in a critique of Mosaic and other early Web browsers as useful for accessing documents but not as useful for creating them — thereby presenting ‘interactive creativity’ as an alternative to passive consumption in a way that echoed his predecessors, like Wiener and Licklider [17]. Such a claim, however, generated what we refer to here as a kind of ‘creativity paradox’. On the one hand, this utopian imaginary presented the role of computer engineers and researchers as one of designing information and communication technologies to enable users to be more creative. However, as we will show, such an enterprise becomes somewhat complicated if creative engagement by these same users entailed reinterpreting or challenging the functions built into the design in ways that ran counter to the researchers’ original intentions.



4. The Semantic Web

4.1. What is the Semantic Web?

While the separation between pragmatic order and creativity remained in place throughout the 1990s, there nevertheless emerged a tension throughout this period between notions of an open networked architecture that provided freedom for users and the desire to resolve issues behind the screen that ran counter to principles of universal standards that ensured compatibility between Web applications and data sources. This tension was best encapsulated in the promotion of the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web stack has been operational since 2006, but the ideas that underpinned its design extended at least a decade earlier. Its core technical components are Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs), resource description formats for data interchange (RDF — this sits on top of XML), ontology (OWL), querying (SPARQL), and the rules interchange format (RIF). These standards were designed to help people move from a series of human-readable HTML pages to a structured Web where data resides in RDF graphs, which machines can effectively organise, search and interpret. These are now deployed commercially in organisations ranging from small IT security start-ups like Garlik to large multinationals like Oracle. As of writing, its deployment remains modest and limited to a small percentage of organisations — even though the open linked data cloud continues to grow.

4.2. Vision for the Semantic Web

Just as they did for the early Web, Berners-Lee’s statements played an extensive role in promoting the potential of the Semantic Web. In 1994, Berners-Lee presented the concept of the Semantic Web at the first World Wide Web Conference (Hall, 2011). Over the following decade, he continued to promote the design in texts like Weaving the Web (Berners-Lee, 1999) and in 2001 with the publication of a paper in Scientific American (Berners-Lee, et al., 2001). From this point on the W3C worked to develop the standards and communicate their intent broadly in an attempt to spread their adoption.

It is clear that some of the values originally expressed by Berners-Lee for the Web continued to apply to his statements on the Semantic Web. In particular that of universality and the value of technical transparency were articulated in the early days but became much more prominent in more recent statements about the Semantic Web. Berners-Lee also connected the ‘new’ Semantic Web with the more familiar existing Web:

“One thing to always remember is that the Web of the future will have BOTH documents and data. The Semantic Web will not supersede the current Web. They will coexist. The techniques for searching and surfing the different aspects will be different but will connect. Text search engines don’t have to go out of fashion.” (Berners-Lee as quoted in Morris, 2008)

Parts of the vision for the Semantic Web had been present in Berners-Lee”s discourse since the original proposal of the Web, in particular the focus on data. As explained in Weaving the Web, the Semantic Web could be understood as a “web of data” [18]. This was in contrast to an earlier understanding of the Web as a platform in which, as Lev Manovich put it, “the page [is] a basic unit of data organization” [19]. In the Semantic Web, data itself became the basic unit representing a culmination of technical order behind the screen. This shift presented by Berners-Lee as merely the continuation of the original aims of the Web whose vision for the future, he argued, had always included data. Berners-Lee (1989) explained in the original proposal that the system should be “future-proof” in that it should be “portable, or supported on many platforms”, and “extendible to new data formats”.

While there was considerable continuity between the statements expressed for the original notion of the Web and the Semantic Web, one important difference involved the shift towards a heavy emphasis on behind the screen technology. Much of the work focused on machine-to-machine or computer-driven Web. While this “extension of the Web” was meant to deliver greater benefits to end users, it placed a considerable premium on the role of technology as a black box that privileged simplicity over elegance. This approach reinforced the distinction between in front of and behind the screen, wherein the user was freed from the burden of assessing and combining certain kinds of data thanks to technical processes that automated data creation and exchange through standards-based tools and curated standardised data and ontologies. Texts that discussed the more ‘in front of the screen’ aspects of the Semantic Web emphasised the delivery of services by automated systems that functioned as personal assistants (for example, Berners-Lee, et al., 2001).



5. The Web 2.0 wave

5.1. A brief history of the emergence of Web 2.0

Although the expression was used in other contexts before the turn of the millennium, Web 2.0 emerged as a significant expression of a media imaginary for the Web in late 2004 (Allen, 2013; Scholz, 2008). Web 2.0 was popularized through a series of conferences organised by Tim O’Reilly in response to the economic uncertainty that followed the bursting of the “” financial bubble. These conferences from this period became so influential among venture capitalists and technology evangelists that O’Reilly’s company was said to consider trademarking ‘Web 2.0’ (Doctorow, 2006).

One of O’Reilly’s collaborators at the time, Paul Graham, defined Web 2.0 as a combination of Web technologies known as Ajax, democratic participation, and ‘not dissing users’. Such a simplified summary overlooked a number of implicit assumptions that included the valorisation of entrepreneurial approaches to design by commercial actors, such as Google, who in turn became the standard bearers for innovation on the Web:

“Web 2.0 means using the Web as it was meant to be used, and Google does. That’s their secret. They’re sailing with the wind, instead of sitting becalmed praying for a business model, like the print media, or trying to tack upwind by suing their customers, like Microsoft and the record labels.” (Graham, 2005)

Similarly, O’Reilly used Google’s PageRank as a paradigmatic example of Web 2.0:

“What Larry Page realized was that meaning was already being encoded unconsciously by Web page creators when they linked one page to another. And that understanding that a link was a vote allowed Google to give better search results than people who, up to that time, were just searching the contents of the various documents on the Web.” (O’Reilly, 2007a)

But as Allen (2008) pointed out, much of the work attributed to Google predated the first bubble, arguably rendering much of the notion of a new era in Web design questionable. The “2.0” moniker itself evoked ‘versioning’ popularized by software licensing, suggesting a rebranding from an older technology product to a new and improved version of the technology. Allen’s (2013) history of Web 2.0 as a particular type of media imaginary (what he referred to as a ‘rhetorical technology’ [20] demonstrated how the term was used in a normative sense to describe ‘good’ Web practice — i.e., ‘profitable, useful, technologically clever, and socially valuable’ (Allen, 2008). It generated clean and clear categorical distinctions for understanding changes to the Web. O’Reilly’s objective was to reinvent the Web in order to encourage a new round of investment and subsequent development by imagining telecommunication infrastructure for the Web in order to generate revenue without reproducing visions presented by telecommunication and traditional media industries (Allen, 2008). Allen’s analysis illustrated how these clear categorical distinctions not only reinforced an understanding of the Web as an incomplete project that required continuous improvement, but also that the boundaries between versions were not completely accountable for considering technical developments that preceded Web 2.0. The ‘evolutionary’ model of Web developments [21] implied by ‘versioning’ must therefore be understood as only loosely connected to technological functionality.

It is here that a media imaginary based exclusively on dialectic between utopian and ideological imaginaries of the Web had difficulty holding up on its own. While certainly an attempt by some actors to consolidate existing disparate views of the Web into a coherent imaginary that reinforces the status quo by masking utopian ideals, analyses of Web 2.0 discourses (Allen, 2013; Scholz, 2008) demonstrated that these attempts represented an alternative vision to a relatively dominant ideological status quo embodied by traditional media industries (Allen, 2008).

Even during its launch, Web 2.0 was met with a degree of scepticism. Some media coverage broached the new term with a degree of suspicion. In some respects, Web 2.0 was similar to the type of ‘cyberbole’ [22] and ‘irrational exuberance’ (Schiller, 2000) that preceded the very crash of the turn of the millennium that served as an impetus for Web 2.0’s creation. In effect, Web 2.0 represented a continuation of what Melvin Pollner (2002) described as the Internet/investment intersection. The media imaginary of creativity that drove Web 2.0 was extended to both frames of functioning and frames of use from its early days in 2004 until it was assailed by challenges that followed the same versioning discourse through various attempts to define ‘Web 3.0’ [23], including attempts to define the Semantic Web as Web 3.0. A core principle that remained throughout the existence of Web 2.0 was a particular emphasis on the dynamic between the design and use, wherein frames of use took precedence over frames of functioning. For O’Reilly and his supporters, Web 2.0 entailed building value out of the ways in which people who worked ‘in front of the screen’ elected to interact with the material behind the screen. This approach represented a shift away from concerns traditionally articulated within the context of academic research and towards a more entrepreneurially commercial vision for the future of the Web. In other words, Web 2.0 enshrined a media imaginary in which creativity stemming from frames of use, especially those that captured commercial value through user engagement, drove frames of functioning.

What was nevertheless missing in the critical accounts of Web 2.0 presented was an account of the way in which this media imaginary developed in a dialectical relation to competing visions of the Web, like the Sematic Web. Since technical components of the Semantic Web preceded Web 2.0, its versioning as Web 3.0 overlooked how both had developed in parallel. It is therefore useful to look beyond the question of whether or not Web 2.0 correctly described the kinds of changes taking place in Web design at the time and focus on how some aspects of its development were presented as a specific alternative to the Semantic Web imaginary.

5.2. Contrasting imaginaries of Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web: Ontology vs. folksonomy

An example of the dichotomous contrast between media imaginaries for the Web was encapsulated in a series of talks in 2005, including a speaking engagement at the O’Reilly Web 2.0, given by Web developer, lecturer, and author Clay Shirky (2005). While not an explicit defense of Web 2.0 (or an explicit attack on the Semantic Web), Shirky distilled the difference between the values espoused by Web 2.0 enthusiasts into a difference between ontologies and what he termed ‘folksonomies’. Ontologies, a significant component of the architecture of the Semantic Web, were characterised as part of an outdated hierarchical approach to the organisation of online information. While he did not dismiss ontologies entirely, he argued that they were mostly only of value for small groups of experts — read academics and other kinds of researchers. Conversely, folksonomies were said to privilege everyday users as sources of knowledge. For Shirky, much activity on the Web was conducted by uncoordinated individual users with little or no authority and involved ‘unstable entities’ that were difficult to formally categorise. This contrast represented a thinly veiled critique of the Semantic Web, tying its principles to a form of ‘pre-Web 2.0’ thinking that did not adequately value the creativity of individual users:

“[...] if we are, from a bunch of different points of view, applying some kind of sense to the world, then you don’t privilege one top level of sense-making over the other. What you do instead is you try to find ways that the individual sense-making can roll up to something which is of value in aggregate, but you do it without an ontological goal. You do it without a goal of explicitly getting to or even closely matching some theoretically perfect view of the world. Critically, the semantics here are in the users, not in the system. This is not a way to get computers to understand things.”

It is through these types of contrasts that evangelists of Web 2.0 took on the mantle of the ‘crowd’s and refashioned the Web from in front of the screen into what Tim O’sReilly (Singel, 2005; O’sReilly, 2005) referred to at the time as “architecture of participation”s, re-articulating the dominant imaginary of the Web as one whose starting point was the creativity found in front of the screen. It was at this point that a “Web 2.0 vs. Semantic Web” narrative emerged — the former as the story of grassroots, populist approaches to capturing the creativity and ingenuity of individuals while the latter was caricatured as a bureaucratic, elitist, top-down vision of a machine-focused Web.

As Web 2.0 acquired a dominant position, Berners-Lee, his collaborators, and others who believed in the potential of the Semantic Web found themselves obliged to defend their position in contrast to ideas like folksonomies. From approximately 2006, statements by Berners-Lee explicitly addressed these issues. For example, in a discussion on the difference between ‘semantic labels’ and ‘folksonomic tags’, Berners-Lee referred to the Web 2.0 ‘wave’ in which he expounded on the flexibility of ontology as an ‘agreement’:

“The essential thing about a label is that as I build it, I am prompted to use shared ontologies. They could be group ontologies which others have exported, they could be globally understood ontologies like time and place, and e-mail address of a person depicted. As I create the label from an (extendable) set of options in menus, and using drag and drop and other user interface tricks for noting relationships, I am creating data which will be much more useful than the tag. The tag then I can slap on very easily.” (Berners-Lee, 2006a)

Through such quotes it is possible to perceive the difficulty facing defenders of the Semantic Web in trying to imagine a clear and compelling experience for using the Semantic Web. Media accounts also picked up on and exacerbated the tension between both visions, as in this account from an interview with Berners-Lee in 2006:

“When asked if it’s fair to say that the difference between the two might be fairly described as “Web 1.0 is about connecting computers, while Web 2.0 is about connecting people,” Berners-Lee replied, “Totally not. Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” (N. Anderson, 2006)

This defense depended on the versioning discourse introduced with Web 2.0. The tension previously identified in the relationship between an emphasis on universality behind the screen and creativity in front of the screen left Berners-Lee in a difficult position when responding to accusations of privileging a ‘top-down’ approach to the Web:

“Some people perceive ontologies as top-down, somewhat authoritarian constructs — unrelated, or only tenuously related, to people’s actual practice, to the variety of potential tasks in a domain, or to the operation of context. [...] If the Semantic Web is seen as requiring widespread buy-in to a particular point of view, then it’s understandable that emergent structures like folksonomies begin to seem more attractive. But this isn’t a Semantic Web requirement. Ontologies are a rationalization of actual data-sharing practice.” [24]

Not only was Berners-Lee forced into a position that was incongruous with previous statements about the Semantic Web but the contrast also played into a narrative based on ivory tower academics against free-market entrepreneurs. In essence these exchanges placed Berners-Lee and his collaborators on the defensive, requiring a response to accusations of promoting ‘ontologies’ of the Semantic Web as a ‘top-down’ approach — the exact anti-thesis of the original imagination that animated the Web as promoted by Berners-Lee. The exchanges represented an ongoing struggle for claims to represent creativity, ingenuity, and the do-it-yourself individual contributions, decreed as the foundations of the Web and the Internet.

Prior to the arrival of Web 2.0, the Semantic Web laid claim to DIY creativity because there was no credible alternative. With the arrival of Web 2.0, the Semantic Web as a project originally drummed-up to be an exciting and empowering evolution of the Web began to seem like a technically-focused vision of the Web in which technological standards took centre stage and required a great deal of attention. Of course, many Semantic Web enthusiasts, including Berners-Lee, challenged this view but articulating the Semantic Web vision into a compelling DIY creative media imaginary remained a struggle relative to the now established Web 2.0 tale that appeared to be a more user and business-friendly story.



6. The resolution or circumvention of contrasts between media imaginaries?

While the contrast between both imaginaries generated a considerable amount of debate, it should be noted that, for the most part, the substance of the disagreement remained around the means, not the end. The fundamental faith in the importance of the creativity and ingenuity of individual users was present in both imaginaries. It is also important to note the collegiality of the statements by Berners-Lee encountered in the research, an approach in keeping with conventions of academic research culture. There was a tendency to avoid direct conflict, to take a conciliatory — or at the very least, civil — tone.

There were statements that attempted to point out that the values in the original design of the Web and the Semantic Web were consistent with the values of Web 2.0, such as the ‘sailing in the wind’ approach to understanding user data:

“And as a universal medium, of course, it is important that the Web itself doesn’t try to decide what is publishable. The way quality works on the Web is through links.

It works because reputable writers make links to things they consider reputable sources. So readers, when they find something distasteful or unreliable, don’t just hit the back button once, they hit it twice. They remember not to follow links again through the page which took them there. One’s chosen starting page, and a nurtured set of bookmarks, are the entrance points, then, to a selected subweb of information which one is generally inclined to trust and find valuable.” (Berners-Lee, 2006b)


“Two delights drove the Web: one of being told by a stranger your Web page has saved their day, and the other of discovering just the information you need and for which you couldn’t imagine someone having actually had the motivation to provide it.” (Berners-Lee, 2006b)

Nevertheless, the way in which the Semantic Web imaginary was articulated clearly underwent a significant change with the advent of Web 2.0. The former’s focus on the frame of function shifted to the frame of use as articulated in the latter. What was less clear was whether, over time, both of these imaginaries worked towards a resolution or simply circumvented each other. Texts analysed for this paper illustrated a progressive shift in Berners-Lee’s statements from the mid-2000s onwards away from promoting or defending the Semantic Web. Instead there was greater promotion of ‘linked data’. This shift, while not substantively different from a defence of some of the early key principles that underpinned the Semantic Web, was effective in avoiding many of the philosophical differences that divided Web 2.0 and the Semantic Web.

Linked data clearly represented a shift in emphasis away from the frame of function to the frame of use. It moved away from an attempt to redesign technologies into a cohesive order for the creation and dissemination of data and instead moved towards attempts at convincing people in front of the screen to question how data was connected over the Web. By focussing on linked data, Semantic Web enthusiasts like Berners-Lee reasserted key principles that underpinned the successful diffusion of the World Wide Web by transferring attention to issues and organisations that were more compatible with the academic research culture with which the Semantic Web was associated. In Berners-Lee’s case, this included raising issues pertaining to open government data and Net neutrality through campaigns like the Web we Want ( From about 2008-2009 and following the push for an academic ‘Web science’ research agenda (Hendler, et al., 2008), the promotion of linked data principles were applied to more specific disciplinary contexts such as eHealth (schraefel, et al., 2009) and government initiatives for open data (Hogge, 2010).

Conversely, companies like Google began to adopt some of the technological principles of the Semantic Web to their own commercial services through initiatives like Schema ( O’Reilly and his collaborators also eventually appropriated what they perceived to be valuable aspects of the Semantic Web in order to incorporate it into a consistent vision for the future of the Web. This approach pointed to an ideological appropriation of some of the utopian ideals of their academic counterparts:

“It’s always seemed to me that Web 2.0 as it was evolving would eventually turn into the Semantic Web, just that it was too early to specify the means by which it would do so. What’s at issue is not where we’re going, but what tools we will use to get there.

[...] What’s going to be really interesting is to see how the Semantic Web technologies develop now that we have actual, real life, messy use cases to work from, derived by people who don’t think about rigor, but just about the shortest path to the jam jar.” (O’Reilly, 2007b)

Once Web 2.0 had positioned the frame of use as the nexus of DIY creativity within a dominant media imaginary, it was possible for versioning to extend to the Semantic Web as Web 3.0 as an offshoot of this nexus despite the fact that it preceded the birth of Web 2.0 by a decade. How these developments continue to play out is a matter for further study.



Conclusion: A program for future study

The above account weaves together two media imaginaries — the Semantic Web and Web 2.0 — as a way of analysing how our understanding of the Web as a media object has shifted over time. We show how these contrasting visions of the Web, particularly with respect to discourses of creativity, are deployed as a means of prioritizing frames of function and frames of use to shape the Web’s socio-technical development. What remains to be seen is the extent to which these types of contrapuntal relationships extend beyond the narrow scope of the texts analysed in this research. Further study is required to better understand how different protagonists who have participated in the ongoing articulation of media imaginaries for the Web have contributed to its dominant and alternative imaginaries.

While not an exhaustive list of future research possibilities, we single out two avenues for promising future research based on the above framework. The first entails broadening the scope of social, economic, cultural, and political backgrounds of these imaginaries. Even if we have identified contrasting imaginaries in the corpus of texts analysed, it should nevertheless be noted that they are representative of a fairly homogenous group of mostly white, educated, males living in Europe and the United States. We should ask if and how the media imaginaries of groups of different cultural backgrounds are in some way entwined with these imaginaries. To what extent do they contribute to the order of divisions between frames of function and frames of use?

A second avenue for future enquiry would entail investigating the current attempts at generating social and technological solutions for combining Semantic Web and Web 2.0 functionalities (see for example Ankolekar, et al., 2008) and user practices. As noted earlier, there are a number of recent academic, public, and commercial initiatives that attempt to fashion new projects from the two. In what ways are discourses of creativity mobilised as part of these projects to define and prioritize the distinctions between the technological processes and social roles behind the screen and in front of the screen? End of article


About the authors

Frédérik Lesage (Ph.D,, London School of Economics and Political Science) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. His research interests include digital media, creative practice, and mediation theory. His work has been published in journals including Convergence, International Journal of Art and Technology, and the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.
E-mail: flesage [at] sfu [dot] ca

Louis Rinfret (Ph.D., Lancaster University) is Professor of Strategy and Innovation at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières and Digital Strategy Lead at Carbon Management Canada. Prior to his academic career Louis worked internationally in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector for a decade. His current research addresses the stimulation of innovation within and across organizations, the performance of collaborative and open business strategies as well as the evolution of ICT and their socio-economic implications.
E-mail: Louis [dot] Rinfret [at] uqtr [dot] ca



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Editorial history

Received 1 September 2014; revised 23 July 2015; accepted 21 September 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Frédérik Lesage and Louis Rinfret.

Shifting media imaginaries of the Web
by Frédérik Lesage and Louis Rinfret.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 10 - 5 October 2015

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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