Weighing In

Democratization vs. the Lowest Common Denominator

We could say that Web 2.0 is about the tools but also about democratization -- the sites we think of as Web 2.0 sites often use voting functionalities to reveal "the wisdom of the crowds," a continually evolving consensus about what's important.

But, this Web 2.0 enthusiast has some misgivings about the democratization of information in Web 2.0. If, instead of my morning dose of the New York Times, I read only Reddit, I might be current, but confused. At Reddit, posted news stories rise to the top of the "page" as the result of the popularity of those stories. If we all decided to read Reddit, our culture would have an imaginary floating agenda determined more by interesting phrases than importance.

Here's a post from Reddit about Digg -- www.digg.com -- a similar news aggregating site: "Digg used to be quite good actually, but as more and more people use it the niche community it had is overwhelmed by a large number of people. This means that only 'lowest common denominator' stuff does well, and you slowly fall into the trap of being tabloid."

So, we end up not with an alternative to editorial gate-keeping but with idiosyncratic snapshots of catchy-titled tidbits.

Higher education, including research, strives toward a consensus among the most informed in a field. But the kind of democratization many aggregating Web 2.0 technologies encourage could instead be read as "dissipation." Some say the best kind of censorship is volume -- where the signal-to-noise ratio drops drastically. With this kind of "flood" censorship, no one knows what is considered important and what trivial. Wisdom cannot arise from un-channeled "mobocracy," even if displayed in enticing digital form.

Google, a premier Web 2.0 site, has ways to interpret "democratic" input, as Paul Graham explains, "Sites like del.icio.us and flickr allow users to 'tag' content with descriptive tokens. But there is also a huge source of implicit tags that they ignore: the text within Web links. Moreover, these links represent a social network connecting the individuals and organizations who created the pages, and by using graph theory [Google] can compute from this network an estimate of the reputation of each member. [Google] mines the Web for these implicit tags, and uses them together with the reputation hierarchy they embody to enhance Web searches." -- Paul Graham, http://www.paulgraham.com/

In other words, just because a site is a Web 2.0 social site, doesn't mean the site interprets user input in ways that are useful for the re-structuring of knowledge.

The advent of a "world mind" is overwhelming. It is not good or bad, intrinsically. It is good that students can place their work "on the Web" and connect to it from anywhere in the world. The transportability of personal work makes us all jet-setters. del-icio-us shows us a possible new way to organize information. Second Life demonstrates the infinite human imagination in creating new selves -- which is what colleges and universities already promise to parents about what results from their children's time on campus.

But any human aggregating system without "checks and balances" (cf "Internet Bubble") will pendulum us toward excess. Higher education provides values tested over a millennium. It began in orality before the printing press, swung toward print and literacy after print objects became inexpensive and widely available, and now is swinging back toward a new kind of hybrid orality. Probably no one can stop the swing, but we can all be aware of what's going on. To gain this awareness, we must understand Web 2.0. Go to Reddit, go to Second Life, go to del-icio-us, to Facebook, and so on.

Many uses of Web 2.0 have already become indispensable for learners across the world with access to the Internet. We in higher education just need to pay attention and discover ways to best use the infinite horsepower of Web 2.0 for learning.

So, with Web 2.0 it's best to tread cautiously, but do tread. See the contours of the world we live in.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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