David Weinberger
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Internet White-Out

15 November 1999

The Internet is full of misinformation, lies, statistics, and altered photographs. The famous are slandered, the gorgeous are compromised, the unknowns make up stuff just to be noticed. We all know that. But the Web also has a mechanism so valuable that it founded Western civilization as we know it.(Have I mentioned that the Internet -- and columns about it -- are also full of exaggerations?)

The Web is self-correcting. This is the very same feature that makes the scientific method so darn important. On the one hand, the scientific method is supposed to ensure reliable results because it controls variables. On the other hand, there's a social aspect to the method. Because it controls variables, it abstracts the scientist from the process. Thus, the same experiments can be repeated by other scientists and the results can be compared. Science, therefore, is self-correcting: if the method goes wrong for me, that will be noticed by you when you repeat the experiment.

Now, the Web's self-correcting nature isn't as rigorous. It consists primarily of people who think they know more than me correcting my mistakes. I post a message saying that the earth is 9.5 light-minutes away from the sun and I'm sure to hear from a gaggle of self-proclaimed experts who will correct me to the micro-second and expand on my remark in learned ways. Of course, any or all of them could be wrong. But then they'll be corrected as well. The truth is out there. The problem is recognizing it. (So what else is new?)

There are some important benefits to recognizing the self-correcting nature of the Web. It lets you lighten up. Not everything on your intranet has to be right. It's often (usually? always?) better to allow the free flow of bad ideas knowing that they'll be fixed spontaneously than to try to filter everything through one tightly controlled orifice. You get the benefit of conversation, creativity, spontaneity. You lose the disadvantage of looking like you believe that the corporate orifice can be All Knowing. Oz would have been better off if the Wizard had stepped from behind the curtain a long time ago.

So, go ahead, risk letting people be wrong. You'll all learn more in the raucous conversation that ensues than you ever would have by being right