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It is undeniable that the Internet has played a fundamental role in favouring diversity. Digital communication networks have made it possible to publish and consult all sorts of documents and information. In them is accumulated the knowledge produced by a multitude of creators with diverse interests, origins and cultural backgrounds. In no other era, like ours, have so many people had the opportunity to access such a varied and extensive quantity of documents as the web has to offer: from contents elaborated by specialists and research centres, to the material realized by fans and dilettantes; from the creations conceived for a mass audience to those products designed for very minority segments of the digital population.
So it’s nothing if not paradoxical that, on the Internet, a series of practices are beginning to consolidate which tend to favour uniformity and penalise any contents that fall beyond the norm and are situated on the margins of majority taste.
We have a clear example of this in the way that search engines function, that constitute the main door for accessing contents housed on the digital networks. As is well known, popularity is one of the main criteria by which the web crawlers grant relevance to the pages dispersed across the web. If a site generates a lot of traffic and is linked to many external pages, it has a high probability of appearing indexed in the first rankings of the search results, a fact that, in turn, provokes that it gains more visits and augments its possibilities of achieving more links from other webs.
The way this functions ends up having perverse effects, to the extent that it tends to privilege popularity over and above criteria of pertinence or quality. It ends up being customary, that when one looks for information about specific subjects, the search engines tend to recommend the most visited pages but ones with mediocre information, while at the same time hiding more rigorous but less popular sites. In this sense, it’s nothing if not exasperating that the first positions in the search results for almost any cultural or scientific subject end up being occupied by Wikipedia entries or by pages that copy the contents of this collaborative encyclopedia. The result is that the echoes of Wikipedia end up resonating across endless publications, both digital and on paper. When all is said and done, the collective intelligence flows into uniform thinking.
And it should be known that I think Wikipedia is a magnificent project, one which I have actively collaborated with (in fact for quite a while now I have had a somewhat double life: during the day managing –for a living–the publication of encyclopedias for a powerful publishing group, while at night, I wrote and edited–for nothing– articles in the Catalan and Spanish editions of Wikipedia). I’m simply trying to warn of the dangers entailed in the excessive cultural influence that certain practices on the Internet are beginning to acquire.
The knowledge lodged on the Internet is abundant and various, but it’s not always that easy to access. In another text I stated that the digital networks had brought with them a new type of rarity , one that is not dependent on scarcity such much as on our lack of awareness. In our times, a thing is rare not just because it exists in a limited number – like incunabula or ancient coins–, but because it is hard for us to notice their presence – as happens with the documents that remain semi-hidden in the margins of the web. And in fact a large part of the knowledge accumulated in the digital networks increases in rarity to the extent that it reveals itself as being incapable, of competing with the enormous power of attraction of the most popular contents on the Internet and of finding the means to obtain a certain presence, in an environment supersaturated with information.
In reality, one of the great challenges that those of us who defend the plurality of the Internet face consists in designing strategies to ensure that the minority, the strange and the different find channels to gain visibility. It’s about ensuring that diversity flourishes and finds a place within the immense territory that the Internet has become.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)