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The new common sense

It's premature to answer many of the most urgent questions about the Web. What do we do about intellectual property, about pornography, about privacy, about this and about that? While we desperately need answers to these questions, there's no possibility of giving good answers. At least not yet.

The problem is that good answers come not from law or even from moral codes but from common sense. By "common sense" I mean the set of values and rules that are so obvious that we don't even think about them. For example, if your rocking chair has caught a dog's tail under the runner, you lean forward to free the tail. If someone wants to argue about this--seriously argue--we will think, quite properly, that this person is significantly out of step with our culture. In short, he's a whack job. Likewise, if someone tries to cut in line for no good reason, or tells us the same joke three times in a row at lunch, we'll worry about which universe of discourse they're visiting us from.

On the Web, there are lacunae where once there was common sense. That's why people new to e-mail are sometimes become flamers. It's why people make up persona and tell lies about themselves. It's why I download files through Napster when I wouldn't dream of shoplifting from a CD store.

Ah, but downloading through Napster isn't like shoplifting. OK, but what is it like? The analogies don't work very well because the Web is a social world that lacks matter and distance, two little factors that determine so much of our real world common sense.

It will take a generation to develop this new common sense, but I wonder if we're already beginning to see signs of it. Elements include:

Content ought to be free. Forty million people signing up for Napster has rapidly moved this precept towards a new common sense, albeit one that flies in the face of our real world common sense and its business models.

Be generous with advice. In the real world, we may once in a while help a lost visitor orient himself. But on the Web, the new common sense says that we should share our expertise as well as our music tracks.

Abrupt departures are OK. Hanging up in the middle of a telephone conversation is rude. Breaking off an e-mail discussion seems to be OK, perhaps because it's required if we're going to survive.

Humorlessness is pathological. Humor is a way of forging context quickly. What you find funny tells me a huge amount about you. And, more important, a lack of humor betokens a self-seriousness that will break the back of the Web.

Digressions are essential. The aim of a journey traditionally has been to get from A to B and anything that diverts you from that destination is an obstruction. Worse, diverting oneself is an act of moral depravity. But not on the Web, where all the fun and most of the growth in knowledge and understanding comes from wandering into corners you didn't know were there.

The exact details of the new common sense developing on the Web won't be known for decades. Until then, we won't really know what the Web is about ... or how it's resetting expectations off the Web as well as on.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization

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