Making the Web Manageable with Collaborative Filters

Making the Web Manageable with Collaborative Filters

Mining the work of others is a crucial part of information literacy on the Web.

In my December column, I wrote about the challenges of creating student editors in a world where traditional editing tools have disappeared from the information process. Navigating the vast seas of information online by ourselves is no easy task, and it’s made more difficult by a constant sense of “overload” that we feel as we attempt to do so. But as NYU professor Clay Shirky suggests, our overload has less to do with the amount of information and more to do with a lack of modern filters for dealing with it.

If you get smarter, there is a good chance I'll get smarter as well.

While the Dewey Decimal System was a filter that made paper libraries easily navigable, there is no similar system online. We, and our students, have to invent our own taxonomy or organizational scheme, to create what author David Weinberger calls “folksonomies” to sort and organize our stuff. From an information standpoint, however, what’s most important is that we learn to help one another in the process, to use the choices that others make about what they are finding and reading to inform our own reading process. And the process of creating these network connections that can mine the work of others is a crucial part of information literacy on the Web.

Delicious Reading

Take, for instance,, a social bookmarking site that I have written about here before. It’s one of my most effective ways of finding relevant information about how the Web is affecting learning and teaching. At Delicious, I have pulled together my own network ( of smart people who over the years I’ve identified as sharing my passion for understanding the importance of these technologies. When they read something they think is relevant or important, they create an online bookmark that then comes directly to my network page, where I can then put my editor’s hat on and start reading. From the 50 or so folks whose bookmarks I am tracking in this way, I get a few dozen selected links a day, many of which I find interesting or stimulating.

Or how about my network at Twitter. com? Many of the friends I follow at this “micro-blogging” site (only 140 characters allowed) post links to interesting resources, newspaper articles, or blog posts that are capturing their thinking and that, therefore, have a good chance of capturing mine as well. In this way, Twitter is more than just a way to share snippets of your life and track others; the people you follow become a great filter for news and information. The same goes for the items that “friends” in my Google Reader network share from their RSS feeds and many other community sites.

Reading for Each Other

In every case, I’m off-loading a great deal of reading work to people I trust to find interesting and reliable content for sharing with me when they find it. We tap into each other’s willingness to be transparent about what we are reading and writing, and we literally seek ways in which to share the best of what we find. In essence, if you get smarter, there is a good chance I’ll get smarter as well, and I’ll try hard to return the favor.

If the students in our classrooms are not being exposed to these collaborative ways of finding and sharing information and learning how to use it in their own pursuits, we’re not setting them up for success. There is no question any longer as to the vast storehouse of valid, useful information the Web now offers—useful, that is, only if we know how to be critical of what we find and manage it when we find it. In our kids’ lives, the Web will no doubt continue to evolve as the most important repository of information that they know. They need the skills to leverage it, not get lost in it. Ironically, while there are any number of tools that good editors employ to filter through information in this way, many of them are no doubt blocked by your own filters, filters which in many cases help keep our kids information illiterate.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at