Podcasts, blogs and wikis are making inroads into education and work - and academics want to be in the vanguard. Matt Baker reports
They're whispering about her in the corridors of Whitehall. Her name has become synonymous with disruptive change. And, in all likelihood, she's probably in your workplace already. But just who is Anna Eagin?
She is a fictional character in a blog created by Peter Kawalek of Manchester Business School, and she embodies a new generation growing up today. Its members spend more time online than watching TV. Blog sites, iChat, wikis, folksonomies, mash-ups, podcasts and tag clouds are common facts of life for Anna. And the world of Web 2.0 is her oyster.
"She's a threat because she has the skills to change the traditional model of bureaucracy in organisations for ever," Kawalek says. "I introduced her to illustrate how the skill set of a younger generation is not yet being recognised by employers because they don't know how to use it. I've heard civil servants in the Cabinet Office already talking about how these skills could shape the future and referring to 'the Anna Eagin effect'. The question is: when young people such as Anna get a management job in your organisation, will you tell her that her skills (writing for new media, blog, wiki, video) are no longer needed, or that they should be confined to her evenings and weekends? Will you tell her to stick to your traditional way of doing things, or use her to help revolutionise your business?"
The term "Web 2.0" refers to a second wave of web services based on user-generated content or online collaboration and sharing. The ripple effect from this social computing phenomenon is being felt in organisations large and small, as new content production techniques threaten to overtake traditional communication methods.
Bosses at Leeds City Council, for example, are asking why reports need to be printed and circulated when they can be podcast instead. At Edge10, a Manchester-based manufacturer of monitors, plans are under way to build a partnership with YouTube. Instead of giving clients spec sheets to download, they can watch small videos of their products being demonstrated.
In marketing agencies across the UK, branding experts are colonising social networking spaces with advertising messages. A leading example of this can be seen in Dove's real beauty workshop for girls on YouTube, where viewers can witness a comparatively plain-looking woman undergo radical PhotoShop symmetry abstraction before ending up as a perfect image on a billboard.
"No wonder our perception of beauty is twisted," reads the accompanying slogan, introducing Dove's campaign for "real beauty". The world of social computing ranges from the Second Life virtual world, where politicians such as Rudolph Giuliani are launching virtual campaign headquarters, to blog sites being used by big companies such as Banana Republic and Coca-Cola to run their campaigns.
So who is making sense of this online phenomenon, which many people believe will be viewed as bigger than the broadcast revolution in the next ten years? Very few in the higher education sector in the UK, it seems. The imminent launch of the Institute for Social Media at Manchester University later this year could fill this gap, exploring how new technology and media support the development of new social infrastructure. "Nobody is really looking at this extensively," says Dave Carter, head of Manchester's Digital Development Agency. "There's a lot of experience, but no one is analysing it, which is why we're developing the Institute for Social Media with Manchester Business School and other partners. The aim is not just to equip students with Web 2.0 skills, but to also equip institutions with the knowledge to incorporate these skills and develop best-practice case studies to help people."
Grasping the nettle of organisational change that Web 2.0 implies will not, however, be to everyone's liking. Paul Trafford, a virtual-learning environment administrator at Oxford University, says that the nature of Web 2.0 may be alien to many people at first. "It's disruptive in the sense that proliferation is a major characteristic of Web 2.0," he explains.
"With that comes complexity, and it can be hard to manage. But for me the key word is participation. These tools enable people to contribute more freely, and I expect social computing to play a major part in the development of education." Medical students at Oxford already use mobile blogs on clinical placement rotation to record their experiences. Trafford says that Web 2.0 can provide a host of personalised learning opportunities. "In the future, we'll see the development of technology that provides tailor-made learning paths, making use of whatever tools suit an individual's skills," he argues.
It's hard to predict just how Web 2.0 will affect our social, economic and cultural networks. But many argue that we will not have to wait long to find out. "I think in ten years' time we'll see enormous changes in bureaucratic systems," Trafford says. It may take even less than that. As the sci-fi writer William Gibson said: "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."