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When Weblogs Can Be Harmful

By Michael Feldstein / September 2004

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Do "more" and "faster" always mean "better"? Promoters of weblogs and other personal publishing tools are correct to point out that we are approaching a historic moment when we will be able to gather far more information about what people know much more quickly. In the abstract, this is a good thing. But does it always lead to the practical effect of better decision-making? I think not. When it comes to sharing information, "more" and "faster" don't always mean "better." In fact, sometimes, they mean "worse."

In my article "Informational Cascades in Online Learning," I argue that learning communities, augmented in a networked environment by tools such as weblogs, can fall victim to a feedback loop in which bad decisions are amplified and rapidly spread throughout a learning community. This problem isn't caused by any failure in the weblogs or the people using them to do what they are supposed to do. To the contrary; the problem arises because the communications networks work too well. The judgment of individuals is overwhelmed by the data. We get lost. And because we are sipping from a fire hose of information, we lose sight of what that information means. We lose the context. Sometimes, knowing more means understanding less. To make matters worse, we add to the information overload by repeating what has already been said without really processing it. (Bloggers call this "echo blogging.") People read these posts and believe that we are agreeing with them when all we intended to do was pass them on as interesting. And the confusion grows.

When we jump to the conclusion that more and faster sharing of information always leads to better decisions, we assume that the good stuff will always rise to the top through the power of peer review. But information sharing is a process, and like any other process, it has its quirks and weaknesses. If a learning community's particular information-sharing process is flawed, then communications technologies such as weblogs will amplify the misinformation that results from that flawed process. One type of situation in which this happens is called an "informational cascade," and it is one of the primary causes of mob behaviors ranging from stock-market bubbles to fashion crazes. I believe that informational cascades pose a significant problem in both formal and informal online learning communities as well. So before we go crazy with weblogs in our organizations, we should stop and think about their consequences—not because we're afraid that weblogs won't work, but because we need to fully understand what might happen if they do work.

Click here to read "Informational Cascades in Online Learning."

Michael Feldstein is CEO of MindWires, Inc., author of the e-Literate weblog, and a member of eLearn Magazine's Editorial Board.


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