How does information spread?

If you think of information as a kind of invisible fluid, it seems to flow from one container (a human brain, a computer hard disk) to another through various conduits (cables, words, images, gestures).

Anyone who’s tried to keep a juicy secret knows how it feels to have information bursting at the seams of their brain. It’s like the little bit of knowledge is trying to get outside your head and into other people’s. It sometimes feels that you have to physically restrain the information from bursting out into the rest of the world.

Hacker culture has long had a term for this behavior of information: It wants to be free. This is just a description of information’s behavior. Information wants to spread everywhere. The original discussion of InformationWantsToBeFree concentrates on a slightly different aspect, however: On the internet, information wants to be free, because it costs little to distribute it. On the other hand (and this part is often forgotten), information remains valuable, and therefore there will always be an interest in controlling it.

If you don’t want information to flow, you need to build barriers – the stronger, the better. You have to be watchful of these barriers, because information, like a fluid, seems to seep around them.

If you want information to flow, you need to build conduits. Make channels where the information can flow to the places it needs to go. New technologies seem to do this; making connections within an existing technology network seems to do this.


Generally, when building an interface, you will have to set priorities. From a usability point of view, you might want to spend most of your energy on the tasks that are used most often. From an information propagation point of view, you might want to spend most of your energy on the tasks that you consider the most useful ones. On this wiki, for example, we think that linking to other sites such as MeatballWiki is very important, and that allowing everybody to copy the page database is very important – and thus I have tried hard to make these tasks as simple as possible. – AlexSchroeder

Wiki seems to be a good example of building a conduit. The Web’s architecture encourages information to flow one way – from Web server to Web browser – but makes it a lot harder for information to flow the other way – from browser to server. Wiki seems to open a channel from information-rich Web users back to the Web server.


See DigitalRightsManagement, MobileContent.


EditNearLinks: MeatballWiki InformationWantsToBeFree