Pulling sense out of today’s informational chaos
First Monday

Pulling sense out of today's informational chaos: LiveJournal as a site of knowledge creation and sharing


Abstract
The informational overload currently facing Western society is changing the way we understand the world as well as rendering obsolete our current ways of managing information and creating knowledge. With these changes in mind, I will examine the blogging service LiveJournal as a new and more applicable way of managing information and creating knowledge in today’s society.

Contents

Introduction
Information and knowledge
An overview of LiveJournal
LiveJournal and knowledge
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

Information technologies have given us access to so much information that we often feel overwhelmed, confused, and less equipped to make informed decisions. As Scott Lash (2002) asserts in his Critique of Information, too much information has rendered previously useful information useless. Even new technologies aimed at bringing order back to the informational chaos, such as Internet search engines, have proven generally ineffective: an Internet search on almost any given topic will return thousands and thousands of results, many of which are only somewhat related to a given search term. Consequently, the question that is now being asked by theorists and technologists is "how can we make information understandable and useful again," or stated differently, "how can information be made into knowledge?"

It is in this context that I will examine blogging as a social technology that can be used to bring order to informational chaos. Rather than merely employing the quantitative and objective strategies of technology, blogs facilitate the subjectivity and qualitative abilities of people to organize and manage information, thereby making it useful, ordered and understandable — or in other words, turning it into knowledge.

This knowledge–centred study of blogging will be conducted by examining a strong example of a community–centered blogging practice — that of LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com).

LiveJournal is one of a number of blogging services currently offered on the Internet. Before these services, blogging required considerable technical skill and patience. Blogging services, such as LiveJournal, now facilitate the process and make blogging easier. LiveJournal adds another level of functionality by integrating community tools with standard blogging features. It is this functionality that sets LiveJournal apart as a site of knowledge creation and sharing.

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how LiveJournal is a site of knowledge creation and sharing, as well as a precursor to the new ways in which we will understand the world. I will begin by reviewing the current thinking on knowledge creation and the crucial difference between information and knowledge — a distinction that is becoming increasingly important in today’s informational chaos. Within that context, I will then discuss LiveJournal as a site of knowledge creation.

 

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Information and knowledge

Information is unsorted, disordered, overly abundant and decontexualised raw data, which without any kind of sorting or context, is hard to use and understand. In the words of Ronald E. Day (2001) in his Modern Invention of Information: "Information is the quality of being informed" [1].

I will also define information as being objective in the sense of being uninterpreted or apart from experience or thought. Lash (2002) actually calls this type of unsorted information "disinformation" — an unintended consequence of informationalism. Furthermore, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (2000), in their The Social Life of Information, assert that information can actually be looked upon as an object: "It is something that people pick up, possess, pass around, put in a database, lose, find, write down, accumulate, count, compare and so forth" [2].

The subjectivity of knowledge also arises because of its dependence on people — something can be useful and thus be knowledge to one person but still be irrelevant information to another.

Knowledge, then, is information that has been pulled from the chaos and made ordered, useful and understandable — it stands in a relatively small quantity outside of the excess of information. Furthermore, knowledge is subjective and often socially–dependent for its creation and sharing — people provide the context by which information becomes knowledge. As Brown and Duguid (2000) assert, knowledge does not exist in itself or as an object like information, rather it exists only in people’s minds. Thus knowledge exists in people rather than in databases [3]. As I will demonstrate later in my examination of LiveJournal, social processes and communities are vital to knowledge creation and sharing.

The subjectivity of knowledge also arises because of its dependence on people — something can be useful and thus be knowledge to one person but still be irrelevant information to another. Lash (2002) asserts that knowledge "…converts just as readily back into information as the reverse" [4]. Knowledge is not judged as being objectively true, as information has and is still often thought of, rather it is judged as being subjectively useful.

With these distinctions in mind, let’s now turn our attention to LiveJournal.

 

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An overview of LiveJournal

LiveJournal is a system of user– and socially–organized information that works as a system of knowledge creation. By combining personal journal keeping with community bulletin board systems, LiveJournal facilitates the social production and sharing of knowledge. In order to understand how LiveJournal works in this manner, I will now give a brief overview of its functionality.


Figure 1: Layout of a LiveJournal blog.

Journal

Figure 1 depicts one of the standard layouts of a LiveJournal blog, or journal. The entries, or posts, made by the journal owner are arranged in chronological order and look similar to other blogging services. There is also a link to leave and read comments for each post, which brings up the comment page (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Comments page in LiveJournal.

Profile

The profile page shown in Figure 3 is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of LiveJournal. Everyone who uses LiveJournal has, along with a journal, a username and profile page. This page shows a user’s picture, interests, contact information, and so on. By linking blogs and identities together, LiveJournal allows users to create and build reputations based on their journals as well as their comments and network of friends.


Figure 3: Profile page in LiveJournal.

Another feature of the profile page that is crucial to the community aspect of LiveJournal is the ability to add other users to your "friends list." As you can see in Figure 3, the user bradfitz has eighteen "friends" listed. This means that when he goes to his "friends page" (Figure 4), he will see an amalgamated list of his friends’ most recent journal entries.


Figure 4: Friends page in LiveJournal.

Community tools

As demonstrated by its special features, LiveJournal is not just a blogging service, but also a social network or community. As well as offering personal journals, LiveJournal also allows for shared or community journals. Unlike personal journals where only the owner can post entries (you can, of course, reply to these entries), community journals allow posting by anyone who is a member of that community. Like personal journals, community journals can be added to your friends list and any posts made to it will appear on your friends page.

One of the main reasons that LiveJournal creates such vibrant and persistent communities is its stickiness — a term used by Malcolm Gladwell (2002) in his book The Tipping Point. This stickiness stems from LiveJournal’s facilitation of and tools for user networking which keep users coming back. By comparing other blogging services to LiveJournal, we can see what makes LiveJournal a creator of communities as well as a blogging service.

Outside of LiveJournal, many blogs exist as isolated singularities that have no real system of order to distinguish them from everything else on the Web — they are not tied together or organised into one system as they are on LiveJournal.

To find other blogs, users must either be told about them by someone else, stumble upon them, or find them through a search engine such as Google. Moreover, bloggers who use other systems must create their own links and networks to other blogs and Web pages. These networks are often hard to manage, inconsistent, and disordered. As a result, reading non–LiveJournal blogs or participating in a shared journal requires going to each one individually, rather than reading a compiled list provided by LiveJournal’s friends page. LiveJournal’s username, profile and friends system, on the other hand, make it easy to find and keep track of other users — consistently and all in one place.

One of the main reasons that LiveJournal creates such vibrant and persistent communities is its stickiness.

On other blogging services, people can post replies under whatever name they want, without even having an account on the system. It is thus harder to track who is reading your journal and who is getting involved in discussions. The lack of profile pages in other services makes it harder to get information on people who read or reply to your journal, thereby increasing the difficulty of connecting with others.

Lastly, LiveJournal’s profile and username system allows for the creation of reputations among its users. Building a reputation requires an investment of time and energy in your journal and within the community. Yet, the investment pays off with attention and praise from other users. Since such an investment is made, users feel more compelled to maintain their participation with LiveJournal in order to keep reaping the benefits of their efforts.

 

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LiveJournal and knowledge

What is the connection between LiveJournal and knowledge creation?

LiveJournal and other blogging services have developed out of what can be best described as a synthesis of the current post–modern and increasingly post–informationalist society.

It is post–modernism’s subjective view of truth as being multiple, combined with post–informationalism’s rejection of modernist notions of information as truth in favour of knowledge as useful, that informs an understanding of LiveJournal as a knowledge–creation system. In other words, it is not that there is absolute truth as modernism would suggest, or that there is no truth as post–modernism holds — rather that in this informational chaos, the question of truth is not really a useful one.

Put simply, LiveJournal generally sorts information based on usefulness and relevance, rather than truth. The end result is a new way to bring order to the chaos through subjectivity and qualitativeness rather than objectivity and quantitativeness, thus producing knowledge.

As I have previously discussed, LiveJournal is a user–organised system of information management and knowledge creation. Unlike a system of information management based mainly on technology, such as Google, LiveJournal only uses technology to facilitate user–managed information sorting. Indeed, the people come before the technology, and without them, LiveJournal could not function as it does today.

LiveJournal generally sorts information based on usefulness and relevance, rather than truth.

LiveJournal acts as a system of knowledge creation in two ways: first, on the level of individual users and their personal journals and friends pages, and second, on the larger level of community journals and discussions. Taken all together, the networks created between individuals and groups can be seen as what LiveJournal user Matthew Hobberlin describes as a collective, or "hive" mind.

Individual users

On the level of personal journals, each individual user can be seen as a small filter among many, whose biases are essential to their contribution to LiveJournal. It is each user’s biases, values and situation in life that act as information filters and thus determine the content of their journals. A user who lives near you, is interested in the same topics, or is a member of the same LiveJournal community, is likely someone who will write entries that you find useful or relevant in their journal. Often, users will add others to their friends list based on their reputation among their current friends. By adding users to your friends list, you can customize what types of information you are exposed to as well as how it is presented and framed. In other words, a user’s set of biases are used to bring order to the informational chaos by excluding some types of information and including others. These personal connections bring relevance to information that would otherwise be irrelevant.

Community journals

Community journals take the user’s management of information found on personal journals and friends lists to the next level — to the social production and sharing of knowledge. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (2000) discuss in their The Social Life of Information, knowledge is often heavily dependent on social interaction. Specifically, knowledge is created and shared by horizontally linked users involved in communal dialogue and practice. This socially created knowledge is held collectively by everyone involved, rather than by one individual. Scott Lash’s insight also comes in handy here. For Lash (2002), the emerging systems of social organisation are drastically different from those of the past. Disorganizations, as Lash calls these new systems, are value–oriented rather than norm–oriented, horizontal rather than hierarchical, fluid and mobile, and, and collective. Both Brown and Duguid’s outline of how social interaction can lead to knowledge creation and sharing as well as Lash’s description of disorganizations are directly applicable to LiveJournal.

LiveJournal communities are made up of horizontally linked users who have something in common. Even the moderator, who has special tools to manage the community, does not control what people do, rather he or she usually works with the community to keep them on topic and resolve problems. The user–base of these communities is constantly changing, thus remaining consistent with Lash’s description of disorganizations. Users are constantly joining and leaving the community, but since this never happens all at once, the community is fluid over the long term yet remains relatively static in the short term.

Also consistent with Lash’s disorganizations is that these communities, unlike those based in "real life," are mobile in that they are not restricted by geography. Moving to another part of the world will not hinder your ability to participate in a LiveJournal community. Anyone can use a LiveJournal from any location, provided, of course, that they have Internet access.

By networking in a multiple peer–to–peer based fashion, users bring together their individual experiences and pieces of information through dialogue. For example, a user will post a question or an idea and other users will reply with suggestions or relevant information. There is a community dedicated to post–secondary students living in Toronto, Canada. In this community, people are able to ask questions that require up–to–date subjective and qualitative experiences and responses, such as what it is like to live in a certain university residence, what a mathematics course is like, or how good or bad a professor is. Many students moving to Toronto from out of town find the community useful because they can get answers that can only be provided by someone who has experienced living and going to school there.

As horizontal social connections are made between members of a community, users can begin to rely on the judgement and opinions of those with whom they have developed a personal connection. As we saw in the personal journal level of LiveJournal, each user’s biases and experiences act as filters that determine what they know and write about. By getting to know another user, you can tell if their experiences and opinions of something will likely be a reflection of yours. By tapping into the collective experience and knowledge held by everyone in that community, a user is able to gain actual useful and specific knowledge on a topic, rather than the general information offered by a course calendar or university handbook.

By drawing on the collective knowledge and input of all its users, LiveJournal communities hold knowledge collectively. As Brown and Duguid state:

"knowledge [is] less like an assembly of discrete parts and more like a watercolour painting. As each new colour is added, it blends more with the others to produce the final effect, in which the contributing parts become indivisible." [5]

In this collectivity of knowledge, LiveJournal can be seen as a hive mind that exists because of the small, yet numerous, contributions of its members.

By participating in a discussion, a user comes to actually understand an idea from his or her own perspective, rather than simply being objectively informed about it.

As well as more practically–based communities, there are also communities specifically dedicated to nothing but the development of ideas and knowledge, such as a community entitled "Abstract Thought." Here, users post their thoughts on philosophical and theoretical ideas for the discussion of the group. Once an idea has been posted, users openly dialogue with each other on that topic — someone will reply to the original post, and then someone else will reply, and so on. By providing many perspectives, asking questions and bouncing ideas off each other, the person who made the original post as well as everyone who replied end up building on and developing a number of theories or ideas from the original thought. Furthermore, by participating in the discussion, a user comes to actually understand the idea from his or her own perspective, rather than simply being objectively informed about it.

In fact, "Abstract Thought" is a great example of a LiveJournal community of practice. It is in these communities where people actually create and share knowledge through participation and practice. Knowledge, as I have previously defined it, requires understanding. Thus, sharing knowledge is synonymous with the process of teaching and learning — a process highly facilitated by practice. As Brown and Duguid (2000) explain:

"…the resources for learning lie not simply in information, but in the practice that allows people to make sense of and use that information and in the practitioners who know how to use that information." [6]

Members of communities such as "Abstract Thought" can learn how to develop their critical thinking skills by participating in discussions with other users who have already developed these skills. The same practice–based learning also happens in other communities, such as those dedicated to poetry, creative writing, or design.

LiveJournal, as a whole, can be seen as a community of practice as it allows people to learn, through the use of the system itself, a new way to create and share knowledge that is becoming much more useful in today’s world of informational chaos.

Even learning how to use LiveJournal is socially facilitated learning. As LiveJournal is heavily community–oriented, most new users sign up because a friend has referred them. So, instead of having to learn how to use LiveJournal by themselves, new users are able to enlist the help of their already LiveJournal–savvy friends.

As Brown and Duguid (2000) discuss, learning is better facilitated through practice rather than by reading a help file. Everyone knows that you cannot learn to ride a bike by reading a book. By having a person teach you and guide you in your learning, he or she can address the particularities of your situation and understanding. A book can give you objective and general information about riding a bike, but a person can help you turn that information into something tailored to your situation. The result of user guided learning is that LiveJournal has a very flat learning curve — even my friends who only had very basic computer skills were able to learn quickly how to use LiveJournal with the minimum amount of trouble and effort.

 

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Conclusion

In conclusion, LiveJournal represents a new method of understanding the world through knowledge creation and sharing — a need that is increasingly unfulfilled by current systems, especially in the minds of the younger generation who have been brought up in a post–modern world filled with too much information. In this context, LiveJournal can be viewed as a precursor of how the children of those currently served by traditional methods will make sense of the world in the future. End of article

 

About the author

Kate Raynes–Goldie is an activist, journalist and Internet researcher based in Toronto, Canada. A recent graduate of the University of Toronto, she is currently doing a residency at the Canadian Film Centre’s new media lab, where she is exploring technologically facilitated social interaction. Kate is also leading the development of a blogging community for the Green Party of Canada.
Web: http://www.beefchickenpork.org/kate
E–mail: kraynesgoldie [at] cdnfilmcentre [dot] com

 

Acknowledgments

A big thank you to Dr. Cynthia Messenger for her indispensable guidance and feedback with this article. I’d also like to thank Dr. Matthew Allen, Jo–Anne Raynes, Donald Boere, and David Fono.

 

Notes

1. Day, 2001, p. 120.

2. Brown and Duguid, 2000, pp. 119–120.

3. Op. cit., p. 121.

4. Lash, 2002, p. 154.

5. Brown and Duguid, 2000, p. 106.

6. Op. cit., p. 133.

 

References

John S. Brown and Paul Duguid, 2000. The social life of information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Ronald E. Day, 2001. The modern invention of information: Discourse, history, and power. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Malcolm Gladwell, 2002. The tipping point: How little things can make a big difference. Boston: Back Bay Books.

Matthew Hobberlin, Personal communication (August 2003).

Scott Lash, 2002. Critique of information. London: Sage.

LiveJournal, "Social Contract," at http://www.livejournal.com/site/contract.bml, accessed 20 January 2003.

LiveJournal, "Statistics," at http://www.livejournal.com/stats.bml, accessed 20 January 2003.


Editorial history

Paper received 4 August 2004; accepted 27 October 2004.
HTML markup: LaVerne Gray, Kyleen Kenney, and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Kate Raynes–Goldie

Pulling sense out of today’s informational chaos: LiveJournal as a site of knowledge creation and sharing by Kate Raynes–Goldie
First Monday, volume 9, number 12 (December 2004),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_12/raynes/index.html





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