The Internet has created a fundamental change in the way people access information, attendees of the Fidelity Cayman Business Outlook conference heard last week.
Best-selling American author Steven Berlin Johnson said information was now being disseminated in a bottom-up fashion as opposed to the traditional top-down method.
‘There has been a transfer of control of information from the media elite to the masses,’ he said.
This amateur versus expert approach has considerable changed they people access and use information.
Perhaps nowhere is that principle more evident than with the Internet search engine Google, which developed a ranking solution to organising information on the worldwide web that depended on the input of Internet users.
PageRank, an Internet link analysis algorithm developed by Google co-founder Larry Page, dramatically changed the method of organizing the massive of amount of information on the web.
‘PageRank considers every link from one page to another,’ said Mr. Johnson.
‘It solved [the organization problem] by letting the amateurs have a vote.’
The Internet has also led to an explosion of people self-publishing their writings.
‘There are 40 million blogs out there,’ Mr. Johnson said. ‘There has been an amazing shift toward a mass kind of media – a news democracy.’
The Internet has led to new ways of discovering, prioritizing, documenting and mapping information, as well as people flocking to sites that interest them.
The website Boing Boing has become extremely popular because of its diverse content.
‘Boing Boing has more readers than the Wall Street Journal,’ said Mr. Johnson. ‘You can go there every morning and find something genuinely new.’
Other websites like Digg, a technology headline site, has become a key technology source of information, where readers can vote on if they like a particular story. Other readers can see how many others liked the story and can then possibly choose to read it themselves based on what others think.
The website Wikipedia, a free Internet encyclopedia with more than 2 million articles posted since its launch in 2001, rivals Encyclopedia Britannia information and accuracy, Mr. Johnson said.
By using software that allows for its entries to be written by multiple users, Wikipedia can use thousands of authors – who do not get paid – to update its content very quickly.
Mr. Johnson said that when famed wildlife expert Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray last September, Wikipedia had an entry about his death on line the very next day.
Information like the death of someone would take years to get into Encyclopedia Britannia, Mr. Johnson said. In addition, because the Internet is not bound by the same space limitations as physical books are, more subject matter can be covered by Wikipedia.
‘It’s a very responsive, very authoritative source,’ he said.
The Internet has also allowed people to find other people with common interests, either on websites or even in person.
‘You can use the connective powers of the web to find people with the same kind of interests as you – and then to meet those people,’ Mr. Johnson said.
At Meetup.com, people can connect with other people to discuss any of hundreds topics, including particular religions, sports, games, dog breads or hobbies. The stay-at-home moms group is the largest group on Meetup.com, Mr. Johnson said, adding that there are even sites for people who think they are vampires.
‘Before the Internet, if you were a vampire, it was very difficult to find and meet other vampires,’ he said wryly.
Another phenomenon that the Internet has helped create is flash mobs, which are spontaneous gatherings that can be artistic, humorous or protesting in nature. Flash mobs are becoming popular in many parts of the world, from the staging of a spontaneous mass pillow fights in public to people shuffling around like zombies in department stores.
Mr. Johnson told of one flash mob in the United States where people all showed up at a Best Buy store dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants like the employees and then just tried to be as helpful as possible to anyone who asked them a question.
Because of the rapid changes in the way information is accessed, Mr. Johnson thinks schools need to adapt their teaching methods accordingly.
‘They don’t teach information literacy, and they should,’ he said.
It is not just children that need to know how to find the information the need or the information that can make their lives easier.
‘My 93-year-old grandmother buys things on Amazon.com,’ Mr. Johnson said.