My colleague David Weinberger has been teaching a course at Berkman this semester on the topic, “What’s different about the web?” He answers this question on his first slide of his Media Re:public talk: “No atoms, no centralized control, and everyone’s connected.” But to really understand what changes are brought to us by the web, we need to understand how frames and metaphors are changing.
The metaphor frequently used for the world of information online is “the ecosystem”. David believes this is too comfortable, and reminds us that there are ecosystems that aren’t especially pleasant. (There’s a slide that references insects that support themselves on the vomit of other creatures.) Another metaophor – professionals and amateurs – is too rooted in money and in sports to make David comfortable. And the metaphor of information flow is too abstract and impersonal to explain why people produce and seek news.
David suggests that we wrestle with a difficult metaphor, suggesting that the less comfortable the metaphor, the more likely we are to benefit from it. This metaphor is a metaphor of abundance, a world in which there’s vastly more information than we could ever encounter. We tend to overfocus on the abundance of bad information, he believes, worried that others will “fall for it.” (We’re never worried that we might fall for it.) But is the abundance of bad information really a worry in the world of tremendous abundance?
“The battle over the fron page is an accident of atoms.” When we fight about what news makes it onto the front page, we’re fighting an old fight based on the fact that there’s a limited amount of real estate on a paper page. When we fight over “the Daily Me” (here Weinberger is involing Negroponte, and later Sunstein), we’re ignoring the fact that we all have our personal frontpages: our email inbox. We pay attention to news because we are driven by recommendations from others, both positive and negative. Our inbox doesn’t give us all the good stuff, of course, but it gives us information that’s “good enough”.
“Every tag is a front page. Every tag is a bookshelf.” The front page is metadata – it’s information on what stories are highest priority, which are most important. “In an age of an abundance of good, the struggle is over metadata.” Fortunately, we’re building new tools to handle this metadata. We create tools like tags, seek information through social networks (which offer not personalization, but socialization), and organize information through the (oversold, but fascinating) semantic web.
All these are tools that unsettle knowledge. They’re forcing us to get more comfortable with te fallibility of information. They remind us that information comes from humans, and that we are all inherently fallible. And they’re changing the nature of the public. “We’re all creating our own publics in public.” We’re all questioning what’s data and what’s metadata, what’s information and what’s information on how you interpret information. And that’s an uncomfortable – and therefore likely useful – frame.