Or how to avoid sounding like a social media guru ……

I realise that I have drifted into the habit of talking about webspace rather than websites and I wanted to work through why this is – mainly to make sure it’s not just an abuse of the English language. I’m a big supporter of the idea that language evolves in order to reflect social changes – but also concerned that that is very easy to start using meaningless words and phrases just to make things sounds more interesting. But sometimes terminology does need to change to help move thinking along – and I think this is perhaps part of a wider debate that I have talked to a few people about recently about the need to find some shared terminology to talk about these ideas around using social web tools to do civic an democratic things.

But right now the real point for me is that that fact that I feel there is a distinction between these two words – but is it a meaningful difference?

Probably the biggest difference in my internal definitions of these words is that fact that a website is self-contained – it might have elements of external content but it is clearly the editorial property of the domain owners – which means they also control the purpose. Webspaces on the other hand are formed by the aggregation of content from the users and are therefore not editorially controlled.

Secondly I see webspaces as being primarily social – they are defined by the interactions between people – where websites are more likely to focus on non-user generated content. This makes the potential for co-production in a webspace greater than the potential within a website.

But finally I think the move into more architectural metaphors – the use of the word space rather than a more technical description – starts to bring in the thought that what is being created is more than the technology – and that it has more of an identity of its own. In the real world the difference between a site and a space is one which we all recognize but actually the definitions are not actually that different:

  • site noun (PLACE): a place where something is, was, or will be built, or where something happened, is happening, or will happen
  • space noun (EMPTY PLACE): [C or U] an empty area which is available to be used

Perhaps the difference is that a site is there for something to be built but the word space offers us potential for greater opportunities – perhaps this is why the word suits social web activity better than the more practical word ‘site’ – we want to talk about the potential and impact rather than just the building blocks. The sense of potential comes from the, in one sense, infinite nature of space, and in another sense, from the sense of emptiness. It is a more grandisose and open term than site as a result seems to better suit the grandiose ambitions that can be talked about with respect to social web.

But does this make it the right term? I don’t know – it feels more suitable to me but perhaps we will have to wait while the terminology evolves to see if it continues to make sense.

One way to explore it though is to use it. When I talk about civic webspaces I am trying to describe something with the following attributes:

  • You know when you are there
  • It can give visual and social clues as to how you should behave their
  • It sets expectations as to the type of conversations you are going to have – and these interactions will be about your local community
  • It will evolve and change as its community changes – but it will always be identifiable
  • There is an expectation of shared action and purpose – rather than just talking this is a space to get things done

This final point – this sense of shared action – is where the biggest departure from what I would call a website occurs.

I often go on from there to ask people if they acknowledge the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn – they all do. When you think about it like that it becomes clear that we are missing a public sphere (back to Habermas again!) and that we need to think about how to build it. But the question as to what we are building is not yet clear. The Virtual Town Hall is one possible building – one possible definition of the space – but its fairly specific – if we want to talk about a wider set of possibilities we are still in the position of talking about a space and how we can define it.