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Perspective on knowledge: The good, the bad, the networked

Threaded conversations

Yes, Internet comments can be stupid and abusive. But some sites get it right so their comments sections are worth reading. At such sites you can hear voices from outside your bubble, some of which may actually make sense; it’s been known to happen. And beyond that, we can see—literally see—the act of appropriation by which a range of readers make sense of what they’ve read or seen. That is a crucial reminder that even one-way communication involves two people.

That raises the third way the Net has improved how we know: threaded conversations, a vitally important form of discourse that is new with networked computers. Threads are a simple thing: the chains of responses that are indented to show to which comment or sub-comment they’re responding to. Yet they are an important and recent way for us to make sense of our world together. They let conversation digress without penalty—just skip down to the next comment at the same level—and enable an asynchronous conversation to order itself as if it were a real-time back and forth. Threads are awesome.

A web of ideas

I haven’t even mentioned links. They change how we move through information. They let us collaboratively weave together ideas as loosely or tightly as we want. They let us pull other people’s work into our ambit without having to lay claim to any rights over them. They create a web of ideas that is owned by everyone and no one. So, let’s say links are a fourth contribution to how we know.

When it comes to what we pay attention to, the Internet is like a pair of new shoes: We inevitably focus on what’s bringing us pain. That’s good, at least when it comes to the Internet, for the issues are serious. But we also should remember the positive effects of even the simplest elements of the Net on how we learn and know. We need to keep in mind that they too are built on the basic architecture of the Net as we devise solutions for the very real problems we face. 

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