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Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

Author: David Weinberger
Publisher: New York: Times Books, 2007
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lucinda Austin
 REVIEW 2: Geoffrey B. Cain
 REVIEW 3: Erika Pearson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: David Weinberger

"The change will be toward the miscellaneous, and it will draw on social expertise rather than rely on men in a well-lit room," Everything Is Miscellaneous, p. 131.
As a teacher, I tell my students not to cite sources that aren't credible. College freshman often retort, "How do you know what's credible?" No matter what my reply might be -- talk about peer-reviewed research, a review process, publishing by a credible institution -- Everything Is Miscellaneous challenges the very foundation of just what is credible or not. David Weinberger challenges the conventional creation and organization of knowledge and highlights ways in which new technology is revolutionizing the way in which we think, form groups, and obtain knowledge. Through principles of social constructionism, the author argues that we create meaning as well as create what is knowledge and what is credible. The internet is a medium that is vastly changing our social construction and revolutionizing the way we think and act as a society. In this enjoyable read, Weinberger leads us through the history of the organization of knowledge in our society and brings us to the present day where that which we have known for so long is changing rapidly.

In this book, Weinberger highlights the ability of new mediums to allow more information to reach the mainstream. Where publications are bound by size limits and have to decide what content to cut, information in the "third order of orders" has no bounds. Weinberger's labeled third-order of orders is where nothing is organized, everything is chaotic (or miscellaneous as in the title of his book), and yet information is revolutionized. By stripping away order from information, by removing boundaries, information can be whatever the individual user wants it to be. Information no longer has to fit into the mold that an editor creates for it, but instead is free for the individual to organize and use as he or she chooses. While taking information out of our set categories may sound chaotic, the author actually makes this process seem more organized and individualized. The old adage of "less is more" is done away with as "more" is clearly better in the system Weinberger highlights. For example, web sites such as Flickr allow users to create their own tags, place images in multiple categories simultaneously, and make images easier for other users to find based on their own terms and their own understanding.

Weinberger also describes most of our collective knowledge as filtered through editors and through "experts," who have helped to form our social knowledge and understanding. Weinberger challenges this notion of information and knowledge and promotes the internet as a tool to empower the voices of all individuals. One of the many examples in the book is Wikipedia, which, according to the author, is "roughly equivalent" in accuracy to Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia operates off of individual, anonymous authors who do not have to identify themselves or their credentials in any way, but as Weinberger states, these authors are part of a community and not just individuals acting independently. Information is viewed by many users, dialogue is started, arguments are made, and collectively, users decide on what information is correct and should be included. The results of this process are surprisingly exact.

Although accuracy levels of Wikipedia are high, as a teacher this can be a struggle. Students are often encouraged not to use Wikipedia as a reference in research papers because the site does not go through a formal peer review process and is not an edited source. Students, though, have the natural inclination to visit this site because of the social nature and because so many of them use the internet in general for their day-to-day needs. For many of them, Wikipedia is a source where they go to seek information on a regular basis, and most of the time, the information found on Wikipedia is correct. Students often want to know why sources like Wikipedia are not credible, and after reading Weinberger's book, you may ask yourself the same thing. Indeed, I am now seriously debating my own take on the popular web site.

From my view as a scholar in the field of public relations, this book offers many ideas regarding the potential for publics to form around issues and grow and change in ways not previously thought of. Weinberger suggests that the way businesses divide publics and markets arbitrarily based on demographics "gets in the way of seeing the truly fascinating phenomenon: miscellaneous customers finding one another in the digital world and forming real social groups, not because they share essential demographic traits, but because they're talking with one another" (118). The author suggests that publics are not waiting to be told how to use the internet by businesses, but are instead already using the medium in their own ways on their own terms. Also, users are not just using the internet as individuals, but instead as a social medium creating social knowledge.

Now that we are not all seeing the same national news and reading the same papers, as Weinberger notes, there is not the same shared experience among the majority of individuals. Instead, groups are forming around unique interests. While some argue that the shift to the internet isolates individuals and deconstructs the group dynamic, Weinberger argues "we're not being atomized. We're molecularizing, forming groups that create a local culture" (131). The author suggests that our groups may be smaller, but that they are more structured and organized around specific issues, creating unique connections that help us learn and grow. Weinberger's take on this issue provides great insight into the debate of the new technology mediums.

Weinberger's arguments are convincing and his logic is effortless. His writing style is very natural and descriptive, which makes this book not only good for provoking thought, but also an enjoyable read. He goes to great lengths to give a wide variety of examples, which make understanding of the organization of information come to life. One thing's for sure, after reading this book, I will never again put silverware away without thinking about Weinberger and why I have the organizational scheme that I do in the "first-order of orders."

This book has serious implications for scholars, teachers, students, and practitioners. The internet and the digital world are such a large part of what we all do, and eventually we will have to make up our own minds on just what is credible, and how the order and organization of the social world is shifting. I encourage this book as a great place to begin your journey through this process.

Lucinda Austin:
Lucinda Austin is a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park studying Public Relations and Communication. Ms. Austin teaches hybrid courses in communication theory and public speaking and also works as a communication specialist for a research and consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area. Her research interests include health and risk communication campaigns, organization-public relationships, and educational public relations.  <llaustin@umd.edu>

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