The explosion of information over the last two decades and the log-scale growth of recombinant information on the Web has created an already well-described information explosion for individuals and organizations alike. At some level, every man, woman and child can summon up the information resources of the world with the movement of their mouse.
One of the prevalent responses to this is radical specialization or the attempt to gain some level of fluency in smaller and smaller areas of interest. With new knowledge being developed at very rapid rates, a common individual response is to narrow one's area of focus and find a few areas of personal expertise. We might retreat into information ghettos. Thus, the Web and many other 21st century information technologies have as much ability to separate people from each other as connect them. Email everywhere and always allows for constant communication. Yet the forces of specialization have the ability to engender a form of information (or belief) tribalism with people only organizing themselves around others "just like them." One's center of gravity might be politics, sports, arts and technology or evolutionary psychology, neuroscience or nanotechnology. Or it might be evangelical Christianity or Islamic fundamentalism?
While this retreat might be a natural response to complexity, it begs the question whether it is a healthy one. Successful democratic societies, it seems to me, acknowledge and thrive on freedom of information and individual expression but such societies also require a shared understanding of key precepts; shared values at some level; and a willingness to search for, debate and ultimately invest in a societal common ground. Individual or societal growth is about enlargement or extension beyond the self and beyond the present. Thinking about others and thinking about the future –and, of course, acting on something larger than self. This is what is potentially at risk as we go into narrowing, deconstructionist even fundamentalist modes about everything. Now, it seems, the social contract is up for grabs by anyone who wants to put their own spin on it.
People have been looking for some time for new, personal centers of gravity to replace other centers that have been marginalized or destroyed. Surely, we were decrying the loss of "community" long before the coming of the personal computer and the Internet. But is this a new, 21st Century Faustian bargain, the ultimate triumph of "science over humanism" as people are made the second derivatives of the information and knowledge they have created?
A simple and obvious example of this devolution from a common information experience in the last thirty years is the demise of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite where more than half the nation might gather for their daily dose of an "information update." Now pick your pleasure from 500 channels and five million websites.
While the developments of the last decade or two are liberating in every sense –time, space and variety –the resulting atomization of our once shared experience comes, I think, at some considerable cost. Much of our information now comes nicely individuated by the portals we choose, the filters we apply, the RSS's to which we subscribe and the searches we conduct. The process is, by definition, specializing and narrowing. Yet I think the technologies causing all these centrifugal forces are the same technologies that can reunite us in some way
What is the "so what" of all this rambling?
Well, Gather, of course.
I think of Gather as a place where individuals might choose to coalesce around important content AND important relationships. A place for exploring new areas and issues. A place for finding support from like-minded people. A place to share experiences if you choose to do so.
No longer must I accept much of my content from what I have called the Literary Industrial Complex, that group of concentrated media organizations with their small elites and self-reinforcing arbiters delivering my news and information "top-down." Don't get me wrong. I value the editorial capabilities of a few publications and news outlets that are consistently well-researched, written and packaged. Yet I am far more intrigued with the idea of getting my content from many directions and having the opportunity of interacting directly in new ways with the people who made these contributions. I am also acutely aware of the enormous volume of "junk content" on the Web, a sort of analog of junk mail only longer. The core insight at Gather is that contributed content will be rated by the user community. Good content will force out bad,— a sort of Gresham's Law in reverse.
Gather faces a lot of fundamental challenges. I think its aspiration is to be a place of meaning and not just idle and random postings like so many underdeveloped "content" or "social networking" sites. Unlike teen networking sites that get bigger and bigger but are bit solipsistic in their organizational focus, Gather's value can multiply by the contributions of its member-contributors. It is the user community itself that will determine what is better by rewarding the most valued content.
At some level, this is no different than purchasing a book or subscribing to a magazine. We vote with our dollars. Unlike newspapers and magazines where the content is largely static and time-bound, Gather content will exist in some ways independent of time and space, and most importantly it comes with the possibility of interaction – with authors, groups, friends and acquaintances.
Yet another key challenge emerges. How will a user-generated media site manage its own editorial function? Gather, with its member-contributors, has an opportunity to create a new kind of community. Will Gather be a democracy? I can't imagine that working. There cannot be some mob rule over content. There will necessarily be "rules" or community agreements defined and negotiated by the members (Gather: The Community) with some assistance from Gather: The Company. I think that Gather can emerge as a new " Republic of Information. " A "Republic"? It means a way of "owning" that combines sharing collectively and being responsible (and responsive) individually. It defines a place where users self-select and self-organize as the power shifts from the center to the edges and member-contributors help define their own futures and the future of their shared space.