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Was the web good for knowledge management?

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Recently, someone posted two paragraphs from my 2002 book Small Pieces Loosely Joined on Mastodon, apparently approvingly:

"The Web … breaks the traditional publishing model. The old model is about control: a team works on a document, is responsible for its content and format, and releases it to the public … Once it’s published, no one can change it except the original publisher. The Web ditches that model… and says instead “You have something to say? Say it? You want to respond to something that’s been said? Say it and link to it."… [Y]ou never have to ask permission…

[T]he Web enabled a self-organizing, self-stimulated growth of contents and links on a scale the world has literally never before experienced. “The Web has blown documents apart. It treats tightly bound volumes like a collection of ideas—none longer than can fit on a single screen—that the reader can consult in the order she or he wants, regardless of the author’s intentions. It makes links beyond the document’s covers an integral part of every document. What once was literally a tightly-bound entity has been ripped into pieces and thrown into the air.”

Patty Gray (@Pattyagray@indieweb.social) took exception to one aspect, posting, "Um….that second paragraph. I don’t take that as a positive development for human ideas. Sounds pretty shallow to me, frankly."

She makes a good point about a knowledge environment in which no text exceeds the length of a screen. I agree. The web was never like that. I let my enthusiasm get ahead of me. But her comment raised a wider question for me: Was I wrong about the web’s overall effect on knowledge? Was I wrong in my general optimism and enthusiasm about the change?

Evolution of reading behaviors

I was clearly wrong about the longevity of books and about their dissolution into small pieces. Books are surviving intact and even thriving well beyond my expectations. But, while books still often set an agenda, the web is typically where most of us go to explore and collaboratively make sense of that agenda. Further, the presence of links has made the experience of reading far more fluid than ever before: You find what you’re looking for, click on an embedded link, discover there is more to think about, encounter another link, discuss it with friends and strangers online, and jump to yet another post. It’s potentially bad for your attention span, but great for digging into a topic or moving laterally.

Linked knowledge is structurally different from paper-based knowledge. It’s the difference between posting an inert marker—a footnote—indicating there is more about a topic if you’re able to track down the reference and creating an inviting pathway to different ideas. Links are generous acts by authors, making it easy for you to escape a work’s gravitational pull. Their presence acknowledges that a particular author’s work is part of an accessible, dynamic, globe-spanning web of sources, ideas, conversations, and cultures.

This changes the power relationship between writer and reader. Authors of paper books make sure to give readers everything they need to stay within the confines of the covers. Now the power is in readers’ hands to jump out of a post and explore a topic the way they want to.

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