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The old web is dying. Where does this leave libraries?

It’s not a secret that the world changed in November of 2022.

If you don’t recall, that was when ChatGPT was publicly released. The full impact is still being digested as public consciousness surrounding AI progresses. There’s a great deal of both excitement and fear as AI marches towards nearly every aspect of our existence. But, do these reactions remind you of anything? They should.

It was less than two decades ago that Web 2.0 arrived on the scene. In the early days, I was asked to lecture constantly on how blogs, social media and online discourse were about to change the world. The attendees’ reactions to these sessions were mixed, but typically could be grouped into–you guessed it–excitement and fear. In my own experience, I saw more fear than excitement. Web 2.0 was not only new technology with immense implications, but it was coming hard and fast. The pace of technological change can exacerbate staff anxiety. To be fair, library staff are often overwhelmed by other societal factors and ongoing burnout. Adding changes with world-breaking impact is a recipe for further exhaustion. Unfortunately, we in libraries have little to no control over the pace of technological evolution.

Here we are again, at the precipice of yet another stage in the march towards digital advancement. With Web 2.0, the changes were geared almost entirely towards communication and distribution of information. With the advent of artificial intelligence, the realm of influence is almost certainly…everything. The inherent limits of Web 2.0 don’t apply. AI is already affecting more domains than we perhaps realize. It’s not a big stretch to conclude that the full force of AI is not just changing whole industries and facets of human life. Just as Web 2.0 replaced the brochure-like Web 1.0, AI is set to replace Web 2.0.

We don’t know what this means yet, really. Just as we didn’t know what kinds of collective changes Web 2.0 would have. Would we have predicted the Arab Spring or the Cambridge Analytica scandal? The downfall of Twitter? The rise of TikTok and professional content creators?  As much as some like to prognosticate, I believe that predictions can be hard to make when factors are potentially limitless. We’re already seeing the impact of the changes brought about by AI. James Vincent, a senior reporert writing for The Verge, writes:

In recent months, the signs and portents have been accumulating with increasing speed. Google is trying to kill the 10 blue links. Twitter is being abandoned to bots and blue ticks. There’s the junkification of Amazon and the enshittification of TikTok. Layoffs are gutting online media. A job posting looking for an “AI editor” expects “output of 200 to 250 articles per week.” ChatGPT is being used to generate whole spam sites. Etsy is flooded with “AI-generated junk.” Chatbots cite one another in a misinformation ouroboros. LinkedIn is using AI to stimulate tired users. Snapchat and Instagram hope bots will talk to you when your friends don’t. Redditors are staging blackouts. Stack Overflow mods are on strike. The Internet Archive is fighting off data scrapers, and “AI is tearing Wikipedia apart.” The old web is dying, and the new web struggles to be born.

We’re seeing Web 2.0 in its death throes. When we moved ahead from 1.0 in the early-ish 2000s, it may not have been as frightening, simply because those changes were human-driven.  This is different. Human involvment has been put on the backburner. How do we feel about that? Judging by the news and opinion pieces, we’re feeling absolutely panicked. We’re seeing the death of the environment we’ve become comfortable in, and the new one isn’t well-defined. Unknown territory doesn’t generally breed confidence.

What does this mean to me, Laura?

Clearly, I’m not going to attempt to forecast. My goal here is centered on how we might react to all of this. I want library staff to understand how we reacted the last time this happened, and how it could be different now. My real hope is that library staff become aware of the scale of the oncoming changes and to understand that the foundation of the web, and so much more, is being quickly reassembled into something entirely new.

As for where this leaves libraries? Don’t get mad, but all of this leaves them, and us, where everyone else is right now. When it comes to the impact of artifcial intellegence, we aren’t special snowflakes. We’re all trying to guess where this goes next, how we might incorporate AI and how it will affect our processes and information-seeking behaviors. What are we supposed to do now?

Buckle up and hold on. The world is about to be re-arranged.