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e-DREAM SERIES - Instalment 4: Are we getting enabled by "Web 2.0"?

One of my in-laws is a CRPS sufferer. Complex Regional Pain Syndrome is a rare and refractory disease that causes psychosomatic regional pain and mysterious paralysis in any part of the body. Her husband has recently joined the site run by the leading SNS (Social Networking Services) provider, Mixi, to discuss online sensitive issues entailed in the illness and exchange tips about doctors and medication. So far he has been able to benefit a lot from the membership there without being annoyed by sinister trollers or those who want to peddle the special types of wheelchairs or pain-relieving substances. He is an exception, though.

But the media don't think so. In its January 3 edition, the Daily Yomiuri hailed the fact that "social networking sites bring people together" with a growing number of Japanese signing on to the SNS. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the SNS population had topped 7.16 million by March 2006 but by now Mixi, alone, has 6.6 million subscribers. And what on earth are these participants up to on the semi-closed cybercommunities? They are just socializing very nicely with each other because that's enough to "bring them together."

The DY took up a housewife as a showcase. She has written a "child-raising diary on the Net and made friends with other housewives in the neighborhood" without being disturbed by nasty trollers or any type of abusers. In short they are doing online what could be done offline. But that doesn't prevent the DY from being exhilarated because this is the surest way for them to tame, or neutralize, the potentially harmful SNS population.

Once upon a time, Japan was known to be the world's most closely-knit society. But now that the modern technologies have cut off all these ties lined with the myth of homogeneity, the Japanese people are desperately trying to restore the cohesiveness that existed among villagers in the good old days. The mainstream media favor, and are going to further encourage, the trend on the assumption that these people are ready to subordinate themselves to the media establishment. And in fact Japan's Netizens now look poised to settle for the second-class citizenship in the "fourth estate."

However, the same daily had to make an aboutface in a matter of days. In its January 5 news story, the DY reported that Mixi is reconsidering its way of handling applications from prospective subscribers to cope with the "concomitant online abuse of personal information." Obviously Mixi and other players such as Yahoo! Days, Rakuten Links and Gree, have belatedly become aware that they are facing an absurd, but serious, dilemma between pursuing their growth objectives and still ensuring the closed nature of their social networks.

Initially their assumption was that if they gave the permission only to an applicant who was "guaranteed" by an existing member as a decent person, any persona non grata wouldn't find his way into the quasi-exclusive community. Although it's not really forbidden to use a pseudonym, the SNS providers assumed that with this guarantee requirement, the personal profile a new entrant is supposed to post there could not be but genuine.

Because of the centuries of isolation from the outside world, the Japanese people have remained unimmunized with strangers. They are timid and fearful about getting associated with different people with different ideas in an open and boundless world. Consequently, Japan's Internet users have difficulty judging on their own who to trust and who to keep away from. In other countries, ordinary adults have a certain amount of commonsense and sound intuition with which to discern trustworthy persons from malicious ones. That is not the case here as is shown by the growing number of scam cases where the world's most credulous and suggestible people keep falling for cheap tricks played on them by small-time con men.

It's no wonder that SNS subscribers don't want to, or can't, handle it at their own risk when contacted by an unfamiliar party through the World Wide Web. It's as though they expect their SNS operators to be as protective as a nurse at the daycare center. Against this backdrop the SNS operators in this nation are supposed to provide their subscribers with a safe, homogeneous, and sanitized community. Only on the unrealistic assumption that SNS operators can fulfill the misplaced responsibility, do they blindly believe all other members are prescreened decent people. In short, it's centuries too early to expect them to use the Internet in a way that makes an Internet sense. In a climate where mature citizenry has been a rarity, you can't expect sound and viable Netizens to emerge.

My premonition about the future of Japan's cybercommunities is that they are going to shift to the cellphone, which they are increasingly addicted to, because of their relatively poor computer literacy. Moreover, by substituting the handset for the PC, these people will be "brought together" much more comfortably and lightheartedly, just like their ancestors were in the 17th century, the only difference being that they are still using the technologies of the 21st century.

What about the "outside world"? In its December 25 edition, TIME magazine announced its pick of the Person(s) of the Year 2006. To my pleasant surprise, it simply said, "it's You." Before I saw my own face in the silvery mirror on the cover and was told I was among the year's most influential persons, I had been wondering if it could be Kim Jong Il or Ahmadinejad. TIME certainly knew it's no longer either one of these "tin-pot dictators," or the first female speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, for that matter, who makes a real difference to this world, either for the better or for the worse.

The cover stories took up 15 individuals from all over the world, except Japan, as the major players in the ongoing "massive social experiment for digital democracy" based on the platform dubbed "Web 2.0" by some Silicon Valley consultants. Admittedly, though, "it could fail [because] Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom." Actually there seem to be quite a few people who are disseminating "pure crap" and "the dregs of the newsstand" just like their Japanese counterparts are doing.

Nevertheless, I found it encouraging to see an unmistakable sign in some of the 15 selected persons that there are also a great number of people who are acting like real change agents. Among others, the likes of a nononsense military blogger (mil-blogger for short) stationed in Iraq, a prolific and low-profile "Wikipedian" and a dedicated Open Source software developer look to be making a hell of a difference.

Talking about the mil-blogger, he is devoted to giving his first-hand accounts of the Iraq War. As TIME reminded us, "Vietnam was the first war to be televised." And "Iraq is the first to be blogged." In hindsight, however, the battle scenes broadcast live from Hue, Khe Sanh or what is called Ho Chi Minh City today were framed, more or less. But now all the frames are gone. The mil-blogger is just telling his millions of faceless audiences about what's going on there without pro- or anti-war slant. He is too much involved in the course of events to second-guess or prophecize on it in a laidback and detached fashion.

It seems to me that the man in uniform has sort of un-politicized the war by utterly internalizing it. So have his fellow bloggers in the face of their own reality shows. And needless to say, since these selfless people are doing all this for nothing, they have no vested interests anywhere but in their own selves. That's why people tend to hold them in contempt as amateurs, while, in fact, they should see in these people the emergence of a new breed of professionals.

By stark contrast, old professionals in the political and journalistic arena are all so mercenarily-motivated that they have to stress they are impartially representing broader interests every time they utter a word. But I am sure that they have already started to pale against "you" and will soon be sent to the brink of extinction. This is exactly what I meant when I wrote we are the only power that can change the world in the direction of e-Democracy. I hope that these people with a wholehearted sense of commitment will eventually usher us into the Renaissance of the 21st century.

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