Ancient Human Learning Technology
For thousands of years, human knowledge was handed down verbally, usually from a single person called a "teacher", to a group of people called "students". This was generally done with the aid of information that had been carved, written, or printed by another single person (called an "author"), onto stone tablets, wood blocks, animal skins, papyrus scrolls, or paper books.
The ancient Egyptians used this method to teach hieroglyphics to their children. And, it's how you probably learned 8th grade algebra. During this period of thousands of years, the most significant change in this learning process was the big switch from scrolls to books.
With the development of electronic storage of data over the past half-century, we've slowly abandoned our practice of keeping our information on pieces of rocks, plants, or animals. However, we've still primarily relied upon traditional one-way teacher-student methods for educating ourselves.
In the past decade or two, we made another interesting advancement in the teaching process. We began to use computers not just for storing and accessing information, but for developing and sharing knowledge. Group learning replaced traditional one-way methods of teaching. The online community was born.
In just 10 years, this concept evolved from scattered clusters of computer users to a powerful network of millions of people from all walks of life, sharing large amounts of information in a vast online communiverse. This information has proven itself so valuable, that online communities are now among the best available sources of knowledge on a vast and varied array of subjects.
Discussions in online communities generally contain a greater depth of information than books or other print media. And, the group learning methods practiced in online communities are superior to standard student-teacher relationships for cultivating knowledge. Most of all, online communities benefit from a constant stream of fresh information, pouring in simultaneously from a wide variety of sources.
If a large online community were to print out their archived threads, they would have thousands upon thousands of sheets of paper, stacked to the ceiling. Even if only the highest quality discussions were printed, it would still be the equivalent of many "books" of information.
When it comes to a shared interest or hobby, nothing gathers large amounts of information like an online community. In fact, online communities are so successful at attracting and storing topical knowledge that most of them are now faced with an interesting dilemma:
When you have thousands and thousands of pages of collected information on a specific subject, how do you organize it?
Too Much Information
Most online communities use variants of three basic methods to organize their discussions: search engines, selecting and promoting specific threads, and writing articles.
When you have the informational equivalent of stacks of thousands of sheets of paper, these methods are fairly helpful. But overall, they're inadequate.
Search engines are invaluable resources on the web. However, they're best suited for searching large sets of data. Knowledge that's based around a specific topic with a relatively finite amount of information benefits more from manual organization. As online communities grow larger and larger, their search functions become less and less useful for finding basic information. Searching the archives for hours wastes time and resources, and inhibits new community growth and advancement.
Another method that online communities use to organize their knowledge is the selection and promotion of specific high-quality discussions. This is generally done with the use of "sticky" threads, thread rating, or compiling a library of best threads. This method is sensible, but not scalable. Since the thread selection process must be done manually, usually by community leaders, only a very small percentage of the overall threads end up getting selected. Thread rating is a more distributed way to handle this, but very few users regularly rate threads. Even if every thread in an online community were rated by every user, it still wouldn't solve the problem of converting informational discussions into a more digestible form of knowledge. It would only reduce the bulk of information that has to be searched. Eventually, the top-rated discussions would themselves grow to an unmanageable size.
Online communities also typically publish externalized articles that address common questions or issues. Articles can be very helpful, especially to newer users. Offline, articles are a common unit of informational currency. But for most online communities, even a large list of articles doesn't compare to the wealth of knowledge stored in the archive of discussions. While articles provide a helpful informational service, their static, one-way method of delivering information could never adequately serve the needs of a large, knowledge-based online community.
We've achieved expertise in the task of gathering and storing vast amounts of information with the use of online communities. But when it comes to organizing our information, we're still newbies.
Online communities suffer as a result of inadequate methods of organizing information. We waste time and resources by repeatedly answering the same basic questions. The more information a community acquires, the longer it takes a new member to assimilate into the group. And, we mis-allocate member resources on informational tasks that could be solved by a centralized, automated teaching process. Many online communities reach a point where they continue to grow in size, but they stop advancing their shared knowledge.
Since our information is largely unorganized, it's often inaccessible. Most sites don't use newer SEO methods to ensure that their content gets spidered. As a result, much online community knowledge isn't even listed in Google or other large search engines. It's hidden in the depths of what is called the "Deep Web" -- a vast abyss of billions upon billions of unorganized and largely inaccessible pages of information.
The net has expanded tremendously over the past few years. Recently, we've seen the development of new community-based methods for sharing information and knowledge. By applying these new practices to the wealth of information in online communities, we can make a very important step toward the goal of organizing and presenting community-based knowledge.
Nascent Knowledge-Sharing Technologies
We know that online communities have been extremely successful at gathering and storing information. And, we know that our current methods of organizing community information have been helpful, but largely inadequate.
Let's see how two fairly new knowledge-sharing technologies can help online communities organize and make accessible their vast stores of information.
The technology that seems most poised to change the face of online communities is wiki. Used most famously by the successful Wikipedia.org website, wikis employ a shared method of knowledge aggregation in which centralized informational documents can be publicly edited in group fashion.
Wikis are conceptually very similar to online communities. They're simply more organized, and slightly more formal. Wikis uphold the principles of group knowledge-sharing, but their open editing capabilities allow for a more presentable and professional finished product.
Interestingly, wikis are barely represented in online communities. Searches for "wiki" on major online community websites turn up meager results. Integrations or hacks between wiki systems and forum software are rare now, but will probably soon be in greater circulation. Wiki editing privileges could be assigned on a usergroup-basis, and text from new posts could be scanned for wiki keywords, and converted into links to live, editable wiki pages.
Another newly popular technology that has the potential to seriously impact the way online communities share knowledge is RSS. RSS is a simple, standardized method for syndicating information. It's just now starting to be commonly integrated into online communities, with most sites using RSS to automatically convert their newest discussions into a machine-readable format for inclusion in news aggregators.
This is an excellent use for RSS, but it has an even greater potential for knowledge-sharing among online communities. When multiple disparate websites agree on a standardized method for presenting information, the possibilities are endless. Online communities that share a common theme or interest can now aggregate the freshest information from a wide variety of sources, and easily exchange knowledge back-and-forth between communities. RSS data can also be used for search engines that can search multiple online communities for new information on a specific topic.
RSS, and technologies like it, are simple applications of what is referred to as the "Semantic Web", a unified means of organizing and delivering information over the web. Technologies that apply unified meaning to large sets of documents could prove very useful to online communities, who often possess large amounts of rich but poorly organized information.