The internet is evolving into one the most significant enablers of political innovation since the emergence of mass democracy. Over the past decade, few areas of social and political life have escaped its influence. Because of the potentially huge scope of the internet (see Chadwick and Howard 2009b; Chadwick 2006), this chapter has two interrelated objectives. First, following a brief explication of concepts, it discusses significant recent shifts in what we know, or should seek to know, about the internet's role in promoting political knowledge and political engagement, with reference to some important strands of literature from the United States and Britain. Second, it generates some hypotheses about the likely effects of recent changes in the online environment, through discussion of British and U.S. examples of what is widely called web.2.0. The broad argument is that continuing to frame research in this area in terms of traditional understandings of engagement, participation, and deliberative democracy risks missing the significance of three key forces in the contemporary political context of these two countries: granularity, informational exuberance, and by-product political learning.
Web 2.0, Granularity, and Informational Exuberance
Though widely used, the concept of web 2.0 has eluded precise definition. Originally the creation of Silicon Valley technologists, web 2.0 has long since escaped the business community and is an idea that loosely organizes a variety of concerns across a range of scholarly disciplines. O’Reilly is widely regarded to have been the first to popularize the term in 2003. His technology-focused approach defined web 2.0 in terms of seven key principles: “the web as platform,” “harnessing collective intelligence,” “data is the next ‘Intel inside,’” “the end of the software release cycle,” “lightweight programming models,” “software above the level of a single device,” and “rich user experiences” (O’Reilly 2007, 18, 22, 27, 30, 31, 33, 34). Chadwick and Howard (2009a) begin from these technological principles but explicate their relevance for politics and suggest the following formulation: “the internet as a platform for political discourse; the collective intelligence emergent from political web use; the importance of data over particular software and hardware applications; perpetual experimentalism in the public domain; the creation of small scale forms of political engagement through consumerism; the propagation of political content over multiple applications; and rich user experiences on political websites” (Chadwick and Howard 2009a, 4).