Main Body

Chapter 9 – Socially Constructed Knowledge: Q & A Networks and Wikis


When people acquire information from online resources created by non-experts, how can anyone determine what is true?

In this chapter, we extend this concern by asking how all knowledge is constructed. As you will see in David Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know” presentation, the concept of knowledge has undergone a re-examination since the emerging proliferation of network-based information systems like Wikipedia and Q & A systems.

The traditional model of knowledge – or, “what is knowable” – has been challenged: Is knowledge best embodied in the singular, immutable form of an expert’s document, such as what is in a book? Or is knowledge best constructed by the combined input of many people so that “what is knowable” reflects a more broad range of perspectives?

Key questions emerge:

  • Which form of knowledge is more reliable?
  • Which kinds of topics are better suited for social construction? Which ones are more trustworthy when presented by single experts?
  • What are the indicators in socially constructed knowledge that convey its credibility? How reliable are these indicators?
  • What strategies can an individual employ to form a conclusive position or belief about anything given the rich socially constructed resources freely available on the Internet and social media?
  • How much weight should be given to each form of knowledge when a person processes a conclusion?

Weinberger proposes that knowledge is contained in networks – virtual spaces or interactive groups such as the Internet and social media – not in individuals. However, he says, while there is more input from more people on any given topic than ever before, there is less agreement about what is actually true.

In this chapter, we put our hands on the instruments of traditional and socially constructed knowledge and compare them.

What should you be focusing on?

Your objectives in this module are to:

  • Describe how traditional and socially constructed knowledge are both different and complementary.
  • Describe how you determined the degree of credibility and usefulness of each source in your assignment research, including the indicators you found in each resource.

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. From a historical perspective, knowledge and “what is knowable” has been presented as “the stuff in books and in the heads of experts.” SM has dramatically changed this perception and calls into question what knowledge really is and where it is located.

    Required     Video (33:22): David Weinberger’s “Too Big to Know” Presentation

This video presented below is interactive. It includes several stopping points where I have provided a preface to each major section of the presentation. Please take brief notes that pertain to Weinberger’s theories and explanations that support the notion that “what is knowable” has been migrated away from individuals/books and into networks.

If you are interested in Weinberger’s book, please review the dedicated website.

    Required     Wiki: An example of social knowledge construction about drugs (15:00)

Erowid: The Erowid wiki is a moderated knowledge resource that .”..provides access to reliable, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants, chemicals, and related issues. We work with academic, medical, and experiential experts to develop and publish new resources, as well as to improve and increase access to already existing resources. We also strive to ensure that these resources are maintained and preserved as a historical record for the future.”

One of the factors that makes Erowid different from other knowledge resources is that it includes anonymous firsthand testimony from individuals who have actually used the drug and describe its effects and risks. Browse through some of the entries to get a sense of how each entry is populated. Here is the cocaine entry.

    Required     Blog: “Think Like a Doctor” – An example of social knowledge (15:00 min)

Review the blog at the link below and observe how a medical problem is presented to a general community of experts and non-experts alike in the field of medicine and how the comments they offer contribute to solving the medical problem. Scroll down to the bottom of each blog article to see the Comments link. Review the Readers’ Picks and then look for the link that reveals the correct diagnosis.

How is this an example of social knowledge?  Often, you will see a combination of expert diagnosticians and common people contributing their first- or second-hand experience of a medical ailment. This is a relatively new phenomenon which has been enabled by the natural openness of the Internet.

Observe how similar this model of social media interaction resembles how humans actually construct knowledge. Think about how you seek the combination of input from your friends, family, colleagues, and professionals when you are trying to solve a problem or confront an unfamiliar and complex issue.


Article Link-NYTimes

    Required     Research: Social media contributes to Truth Decay (5 pages)

RAND Corporation illustrated summary: “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” Among the trends listed is “Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data,” which is consistent with Weinberger’s thesis. This report illustrates the factors that contribute to a sense of loss in the integrity of information and facts. Optional: To read the full report, access the PDF from the RAND website. The Summary section beginning on page nine elaborates on the infographic illustration.

Optional: Supplemental resources related to social knowledge construction

Article: TechCrunch – “ResearchGate raises $52.6M for its social research network for scientists” Retrieved December 24, 2017. ResearchGate is attempting to reinvent the way scientists interact with each other. .”..One of the key things that helps ResearchGate stand apart from the rest is that up to now a lot of the focus in the world of science has been about publishing successful research, while ResearchGate also provides a platform for failures.”

Consulting platform: Wikistrat is a consulting firm that operates as a crowdsourced collective that can be employed to help businesses and governments make strategic decisions.

Alternative social media debate platform: Kialo is .”..a debate platform powered by reason. Kialo cuts through the noise typically associated with social and online media, making it easy to engage in focused discussion.”


Gottfried, J., & Shearer, E. (2017, September 07). Americans’ online news use is closing in on TV news use. Retrieved December 24, 2017, from

Optional: Supplemental resources that are relevant to socially constructed knowledge

Climate change: Conspiracy theories found on foreign-language Wikipedia – This article from November, 2021 describes how conspiracy theorists have used sections of Wikipedia in different languages to promote misinformation.


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Chapter 9 – Socially Constructed Knowledge: Q & A Networks and Wikis Copyright © 2017 by University of New Hampshire - College of Professional studies Online is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.