How do we know what is “true”? When I was growing up in the 1970s, I believed most of the information I received. That included things my teachers told me, things I heard on the nightly news (my mother watched Walter Chronkite while she cooked dinner), and things I read in my textbooks. I accepted most of that at face value, and that was a reasonable approach at the time. It wasn’t a perfect strategy. I believed a few real whoppers of falsehoods that they fed to American school kids at the time (like the claim that Christopher Columbus was a heroic figure), but I mostly made sense of the world well.
Compare that situation to today’s twelve-year-old in possession of a smart phone. She is bombarded by information, expressing a spectrum of contradictory views. The things kids (and adults) need to do to make sense of the world have fundamentally changed.
The internet and social media have catalyzed changes in the basic nature of knowledge. The formal definition of “knowledge” is justified, true belief. How we know what “is true” is a social process. In science, we use peer review. Scientists review one another’s work and come to consensus on what we know right now. Knowledge is socially constructed outside of scientific circles too—what I know emerges from my interacting with friends and neighbors and sharing information.
It’s possible for communities to form different views of reality. Consider a controversial topic which I am personally undecided about: Is it important to plant only species native to the area in a garden? Members of one online gardening group I have joined think so, because native plants are suited to the local environment without extra watering or fertilizers and better support endemic wildlife. A second gardening group is less particular—they will tell you that Japanese maple trees grow well in Atlanta and look beautiful. How did these groups develop such different beliefs and values?
This process of knowledge construction increasingly takes place online, and the design of the online environment shapes how this process proceeds. Consider the question of online identity. Are members of an online group identified by their real names, pseudonymous, or closer to truly anonymous? What people choose to say changes based on how the participants are represented to one another. What they say changes what the group believes.
In addition to supporting knowledge formation, online groups create supportive communities. People need “third places”—places that are neither work nor home, where they can find friendship and support. The art and science of online community design is about building places that provide value for their members.
Should You Believe Wikipedia? Online Communities and the Construction of Knowledge dives into these details—all the ways that online communities are designed, and how community design shapes the human behavior that results. Understanding those design factors can help us create spaces that bring out the best in us all.