The success of user created content in the blogosphere, Wikipedia, YouTube, and other venues has been welcomed as the democratization of information. However, I’ve been wondering if the success of these things isn’t because our information flows have become screwed up.
When formal channels can’t be used the way they should be, people seek alternatives. During the Communist era, the Soviet citizenry couldn’t find meat, toilet paper, and other essential goods in stores. To satisfy their needs, they turned to the shadow economy. I can’t help but notice that Americans now use a very similar method to find the information they need most.
Just as the planned economy failed the Soviet public, the channels we should be able to trust are failing us. Consequently, a growing number of people rely on the blogosphere, cocktail parties, and other places where the information and ideas are exchanged much more freely. Like their Soviet counterparts who knew better than to waste too much time looking in stores with empty shelves, these people largely ignore the mainstream media, the professional literature, and other traditional sources of information.
While many see this as a positive development, it reminds me of the old style Soviet economy when it was in its final throes. People all but gave up on the government stores and turned to bartering and the informal markets that sprung up everywhere to meet their needs. Eventually, the old system collapsed.
Just as Soviet citizens had to constantly hustle for butter and sugar that they knew couldn’t be found in stores, we turn to yahoos on the Internet and seek offline conversations for critical facts and honest assessments about people, methods, products, and organizations we can’t get from reports, presentations, articles, and conversations that appear on record. That we need to do this is symptomatic of inadequacies and problems in the formal channels.
If you think about it, a party is just a meeting with no agenda. Yet if you ask people if they want to go to a meeting, you will get a very different response than if you ask these same individuals if they want to go to a party — even if the same people are attending, they expect to talk shop the entire time, and you’re trying to tap them for designated driver duty.
Why is this? One explanation could be that the chances of learning something useful or interesting is far greater. This explanation also describes why people don’t pay attention to key reports, but they go out of their way to read blog postings on the same subject. Anyone who makes their living providing information services should be taking notice….
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