What Is an Information Ecosystem?
With the rise of social media over the past decade, as well as a significant amount of attention to misinformation and disinformation in the public sphere, the idea of the “information ecosystem” is commonly invoked within academic and tech circles. What the information ecosystem is, exactly, is usually assumed to be intuitive. References to velocity, size, and ubiquity often accompany this concept. The American Library Association’s Framework for Information Literacy, for instance, speaks of “the rapidly changing higher education environment, along with the dynamic and often uncertain information ecosystem in which all of us work and live” (ALA 2015).
What is the information ecosystem? This study, published recently in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science, proposes a definition, at least when this concept is used in the context of information literacy education and scholarly research. Defining the information ecosystem is important because more is at stake than simply the ability to reference new digital trends for the news cycle. A clear definition of information ecosystems allows us to assess these ecosystems and improve them.
—What is the information ecosystem?—
This study reviews the surprisingly long history of ecological concepts like the “ecosystem” in library and information sciences, as well as the potential difficulties of uncritically carrying over ecological terms into the information age. I then discuss three current areas where more thorough work has been done to define what information ecosystems (or similar concepts) are: in organizational management, in civil society, and in medical research. Each of these fields defines information ecosystems differently according to their own needs. Taken together they provide clues for how best to understand this concept within library instruction and scholarly research.
These fields also demonstrate the flexibility of the ecosystem concept. Internews, for instance, is an organization that produces Information Ecosystem Assessments (IEAs) of communities around the world in order to assess the health of local media and democratic institutions. In health science fields, evidence synthesis has expanded rapidly in response to the volume of new research, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of “living evidence ecosystems” has been proposed in order to encourage scientific collaboration.
Drawing from all these sources and taking into account the specific interests of scholarly research, this study defines the information ecosystem as “all structures, entities, and agents related to the flow of semantic information relevant to a research domain, as well as the information itself.” This definition is unique because it clarifies that we are interested in semantic information (that is, information that is meaningful to people), and that we are only interested in ecosystems that are as big as a specific research domain (rather than an ill-defined comprehensive ecosystem of, e.g., all things digital).
The goal of this definition is to be able to talk about information ecosystems in a way that is useful for librarians and researchers. The definition isolates core components of an information ecosystem, like “structures” and “agents,” which can then potentially be identified, described, and assessed. This approach is preferable to more impressionistic uses of the ecosystem concept that refer to our digital and globalized age in broad strokes, but do not contribute to how our understanding of information and knowledge production function (or fail to function properly).
American Library Association. (2015). Framework for information literacy for higher education. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework
Cite this article in APA as: Kuehn, E. (2023, February 15). What is an information ecosystem? Information Matters, Vol. 3, Issue 2. https://informationmatters.org/2023/02/what-is-an-information-ecosystem/