The Value of a Man-Made Mess, on the Internet Many humans' lives are messy — and our houses and desks reflect that with clutter and disarray. But messiness on the Internet may turn out to have a few positive outcomes.

The Value of a Man-Made Mess, on the Internet

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We've all got our projects. And for some us, our house and our desk reflect that with clutter and disarray. But messiness may turn out to have a few positive outcomes, as commentator David Weinberger explains.

DAVID WEINBERGER: Every now and then, someone new comes over to my home office and I see it through their eyes. It's a mess. I haven't seen my stapler in months.

Messiness is bad thing when it comes to the physical world because if you want to find something, pawing through a pile is generally just not very efficient. So we come up with sophisticated systems for organizing our stuff - from laying out our kitchen, to organizing our shoes two-by-two, to warehousing 20,000 million books in the Library of Congress.

Everything has to go somewhere and it's easier to find things if we put them with other things like them. That's called not being a slob. And in the real world, it works. Online, it's a different story.

Take Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. It does have an alphabetical listing, but with around 1.8 million articles in English, it's a lot easier to type, say, elephant into the search box than to find elephant on the 10th page of the list of E-L words. In fact, Wikipedia gives you lots of ways to find the elephant article: use its search engine, click through from the article about African animals, look in the user-created categories of semi-protected, and tool-using species.

Online, we don't have to decide on a single way of organizing our elephants. We don't have to be tidy about it. In fact, neatness would diminish what we know on the Web. In the elephant article at Wikipedia, dozens and dozens of words are hyperlinks. Click on them and you'll go to articles about herbivores or tusks or Baobab trees. Each leads you to more and more links.

Now, view it from the top down, the map of links looks like it's been drawn by drunken spiders. But that messiness enriches what we know. It embeds elephants in multiple contexts and we get to walk down the paths we find inviting.

The messiness of the Web is a sign of the abundance of meaning we're building for ourselves. It's not orderly. We can't always find everything we want. But we get countless simultaneous ways of putting together the pieces with always more to explore. In fact, it's easier to find elephants online than it is to find a stapler in my office.

SIEGEL: David Weinberger is the author of "Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder." He's also a fellow at the Harvard Center for the Internet and Society.

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