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ID:	6066There is no doubt that the internet changes how we consume sports, both positively and negatively. But does it also change the way we think?

In the October 2013 issue of Wired, Clive Thompson examines the benefits of blogging and online posting for the writers, the readers and the world. Essentially, he argues that the deluge of information to which we are exposed everyday is changing how we think for the better.

And it is a deluge:

Every day, we collectively produce millions of books’ worth of writing. Globally we send 154.6 billion emails, more than 400 million tweets, and over 1 million blog posts and around 2 million blog comments on WordPress. On Facebook, we post about 16 billion words. Altogether, we compose some 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media — the equivalent of 36 million books.* (The entire US Library of Congress, by comparison, holds around 23 million books.)
Thompson isn’t delusional about the quality of most of that content:

The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon famously said something like, “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” a formulation that geeks now refer to as Sturgeon’s Law. Anyone who has spent time slogging through the swamp of books, journalism, TV, and movies knows that this holds pretty well even for edited and curated culture. So a global eruption of unedited, everyday self-expression is even more likely to produce this 90-10 split — an ocean of dreck, dotted sporadically by islands of genius.
Thompson’s first point is that focusing only on the content is a mistake. The more important effect is that people are writing, instead of just reading. And writing changes how we learn and think, usually for the better. Because when you write about something, especially publicly, you pay a lot more attention. He cites studies where students change the way they learn when they know they must present their knowledge to an audience, even if the audience is small.

Many people have told me that they feel the dynamic kick in with even a tiny handful of viewers. I’d argue that the cognitive shift in going from an audience of zero (talking to yourself) to an audience of 10 (a few friends or random strangers checking out your online post) is so big that it’s actually huger than going from 10 people to a million.

This is something that traditional thinkers of the pre-Internet age—particularly print and broadcast journalists — have trouble grasping. For them, an audience doesn’t mean anything unless it’s massive. If you’re writing specifically to make money, you need to draw a large crowd. This is part of the thinking that causes traditional media executives to scoff at the spectacle of the “guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.” But for the rest of the people in the world, who probably never did much nonwork writing in the first place—and who almost never did it for an audience—even a handful of readers can have a vertiginous, catalytic impact.
Thompson’s second point is that the impact is further multiplied when it is exposed to a community who can take the ideas and run with them. Leaps forward in knowledge often happen simultaneously and independently. This implies that those breakthroughs aren’t just due to the individuals. They’re building on previous work; the time is ripe for a breakthrough. That’s why there are scientific research journals and standards for citing each others work. They were attempts at a global network before there was the internet.

The internet drives that collaboration to a whole new level. As an example, Thompson tells the story of Ory Okolloh, a blogger who wrote about Kenya during the 2007 upheaval over elections. Trying to track all the incidents was overwhelming. She openly asked for a way readers could submit them directly to Google maps. One of her readers took that request to a friend who was a developer and they quickly cobbled a tool.

The tool allowed anyone to send an incident report in text, email, or web form, which they then pinned to a Google map. They called it Ushahidi—the Swahili word for “testimony.”

Within days, Kenyans had input thousands of incidents of electoral violence. Soon after, Ushahidi attracted $200,000 in nonprofit funds and the team began refining it to accept reports via everything from SMS to Twitter. Within a few years, Ushahidi had become an indispensable tool worldwide, with governments and nonprofits relying on it to help determine where to send assistance. Just hours after a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, an Ushahidi map was set up, and over the following month it cataloged 25,000 text messages and more than 4 million tweets. It has become what Ethan Zuckerman, head of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, calls “one of the most globally significant technology projects.
When Okolloh started her blog about Kenyan politics, she wasn’t trying to develop an indispensable worldwide aid tool. She just wanted to study Kenyan politics. But her interest turned into a blog which turned into community which turned into a network. Big things can happen, both internally and externally, when one graduates from reader to writer.
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If you want to learn more about this topic, follow the link to the Wired story at the top of this article. You can also check out Clive Thompson’s new book Smarter Than You Think, a study on how technology is making us smarter. The Wired story is an excerpt from this book.
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  1. Winston Smith's Avatar
    Saw the title and thought it was an ad for a sperm bank!
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