The web is the most valuable human artifact ever created. We have no idea of how much we have invested collectively in its creation and maintenance, and while we may, as individuals or companies, consider the return on investment for some tiny element of the larger web, like a new router or server, on the whole the web is growing at a stratospheric rate with no real consideration of its relative cost. We don’t even know how much energy it takes to keep it going. It’s a truly distributed cultural activity. Our post-industrial civilization, in future centuries, may be defined by our building the web, in much the same way as we recall the ancient Egyptians for their pyramids, and the Chinese for the Great Wall. And in much the same way, the building of such artifacts says a great deal about the cultures that built them, and suggests a great deal about the societies that followed their construction. The big story of the web isn't the props - the servers, networks, ten trillion web sites, and all the information lying around in databases and in HTML - but what people are saying to each other and how we have been changed as a result. This is a social phenomenon, since we are creating the Web to happen to ourselves. It says more about us that it does about technology. The Web is undergoing a phase shift, a rapid transition from what we have seen since the appearance of the Internet. A move to a different set of organizing features, similar to the shift to Web 2.0, and perhaps a variant of it. This is the social revolution.
apologies. Blogging done this to me. Check out /Message. Biased, partial. Conjecture, wise cracks: incomplete. Today I am looking back to look forward, for, as de Toqueville observed, “as the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity.” We have to think using our memories of the past, but our actions take place in the present, and define the future.
1999 - last issue of my pdf-ed Newsletter, Message. I had stumbled onto a new tool, Beehive by a company called Abuzz. It wasn’t about faster communication or more efficient business processes, it was about following interesting people, within a company. I saw how this could change business, and in a greater sense, how it could change us, as individuals, or as a community online. These tools are intended to shape culture, and by extension, to shape us.
The web isn’t really a swarm of hardware, although it is that too. It is a new medium for expression and communication, more than anything else. Media’s biggest impact is on how we see the world, as tools of understanding, or of meaning. The printing press lead to the Renaissance, and the Web is leading to the Post-Everything world, a world so new we have no name for it yet. McLuhan’s ‘rationalization’ as new media are learned and shape us. We are living in a world where blogs, texting, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, and YouTube are commonplace, and where social interaction through web-based media have redefined the prior media landscape, obliterating much of it, and ushering in a new society in which the Web is primary, and where the Web will repurpose all previous media as content.
Looking back before 1999, traditional media had been undergoing wrenching changes, mostly as an aspect of the globalization of business, that led to the emergence of media barons like Rupert Murdoch, the emergence of 10,000 cable channels, and the strange economics that led to Time-Warner being acquired by AOL. In the hundred years of the 20th century, media had become a part of the machinery of market-based democracies, acting in principal as a means of open social discourse, balancing views, and attempting to shed light on what is important. In principle. However, as Jay Rosen and Mordechai Benkler have articulated so well, the media establishment fell into a formulaic approach to chasing and making the news, and largely failed at open social discourse, all too often ruling as illegitimate individuals and groups whose perspectives and views were not considered acceptable by bourgeois society and entrenched business interests. Press critic AJ Leibling once said “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The rise of the web can be interpreted as a response to the cultural need to break the media stranglehold on public opinion and discourse.
The defection from mass identity and mass belonging, and the return to a new social identity, enabled by social tools. I characterize this as a movement to the edge, away from centralized controls, since a rich network is all edge, all connections. Many consider this in terms of the ‘democratization of media’, which really just means it is cheap. Its not really very democratic at all, the social web. It is more of a return to the ethos and mores of smaller social groups, a pre-industrial sort of scale: a social scale. We will call this egalitarian, but it’s based on individual reputation and authority. The rise of social media, and more so, the emergence of social networks has led to a dramatic change in those involved. I am made greater by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections. The collapse of traditional print media in the US is a cautionary tale involving the hubris of journalists and publishers and the power of defection from mass identity, misunderstood as some kind of faddish shift in media tastes. It is just as much a growing acceptance of the need to participate in things that matter, outside of purely marketplace-based decisions. The greatest advances on the web have been open social movements, like open source and wikipedia, where people are driven by goals that are not purely economic. The move away from mass media is a power shift: individuals deciding for themselves (shaped by the tastes of their social contacts) what is important, and how many minutes they should spend on it. We have wrenched away the editorial controls, and the destiny of media, as well. And once the edglings have this power, they will not give it back. And even the Cluetrain Manifesto’s central metaphor -- of the web as a giant conversation -- is too limiting. There is a lot more going on that just talk.
A change in orientation that may lead to stressing different cognitive centers. I am not an Attention Economist: the people that talk about attention as a resource. That is another take on scarcity economics, which people like because it allows certain analogies to hold and certain approaches to making money to seem reasonable. Herbert Simon famously said “...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” The social web is best considered in abundance, instead of Simon’s way. In a time of information abundance, we will certainly change how we interact, but we won’t necessarily operate from a motive of hoarding attention, which seems unintuitive. We will learn new ways to perceive information as fast as it is mediated in new ways. It is clear that our thinking is influenced by the ways and means through which we attend to the world. Older folks exposed to flight simulator software become better at driving cars in the real world, kids playing video games learn how to teach each other to win, and social tools stress cognitive centers in other ways: all examples of the plasticity of the brain. We are changed by what we use, like jugglers and their beanbags, or musicians and their instruments. Leisa Reichelt coined the term ‘ambient awareness’ to try to capture the notion that tools that stream information through social relationships allow us to remain aware of others with lessened effort. Adrian Chan refers to this as ‘aproximity’ a blend of proximity and approximately. How exactly does our thinking change when we are channeling our thinking through social tools? And, how are we influenced by tools that bring information to us, instead of us wondering around looking for it?
Take as just one (terribly important) example, which is the movement from email to instant messaging and now to microblogging, as best exemplified by Twitter.
Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life. Gabriel García Márquez
The synchronous public stream = flow
The changing landscape of a social world
In voluntary and open social networks, the individual has replaced the group as the basic, irreducible particle. In these contexts, our rights and responsibilities do not derive from membership in groups: they are unalienable. Of course, individuals in social networks immediately begin to create relationships -- based on the nature of what the social tools allow. This is why I have characterized social tools for over the past 10 years as ‘tools that shape culture.’ And it is through other people that we are made human.
The salient attribute of real-time conversations is that they are brand spanking new: the new ones were typed moments ago. The interesting thing about real-time isn’t that what’s important is fleeting. No, the salient attribute is that what’s breaking is brand spanking new: the newest Tweets were typed moments ago. At the beginning of some rising trend (critical to some business) is a single tweet, and a small number of followers who read it and then pass it on. The point where the pebble hits the surface of the pond, and the ripples start to spread. We are trying hard to hear the earliest whispers of things that are critical. Small talk is big again.
Abundance economics means that we won’t rely on search: search is based on scarcity. Imagine that all critical information is available, publicly, and the most important breaking news is a few seconds (at most) away. In this world the problem won’t be finding what you want, but minimizing the torrent so that you have a small number of things to look at. This is as true inside of a 1000 person company as in the open web. Increasingly, we will switch to a social connection mode to filter and find for us. Our networks will become engines of meaning, as Bruce Sterling said. Everything we want to find has been found, and will find us through our social connections. Like head colds and happiness.
We are not sharing space online, although it the conventional wisdom says we are. We are sharing time. Time has become a shared resource. Our time is increasingly not our own, in a good way, as we move into a streamed model of connection. Individual time becomes less of a reality, and a shared thread of time will become the norm -- shared with those that are most important to you and those that reciprocate. This will change the basic structure of work. Time is increasingly less linear, less mechanical; but more subjective and plastic. Individuals will choose to trade personal productivity for connectedness, as voices in the stream ask for help, pointers, and introduction. Connectedness will trump other obligations, specifically timeliness.
The real-time flow of social tools like Twitter, and the myriad vertical apps that will adopt the open follower model, will become the bloodstream of social business. The flow is where everything critical appears first, and where everyone will congregate. Flow will become the dominant motif of all important social tools in this next era of the Web. This will be the ‘still point of a turning world’: paradoxically, the place where the stream runs hardest will be where we are most at rest. The nexus for all the imploded bits of the previous web of pages, where the flotsom of links, messages, pats on the back, questions and alerts all jumble together. That’s where we’ll be. We will be the engines of meaning, sorting, passing things along, choosing who to follow and who to forget, transmitting ideas, decisions, and recommendations. This is where business will be done, plots will be hatched, and deals will be done. This will be the center of everything.
The biggest threat to contemporary journalism is the whipsaw effect arising from the social web, now going real time. The social dimension led to a radical debasement of the power of editorialism and the rise of socially mediated news -- blogs, etc. The real time dimension is undercutting the role of media as the definitive source of news, which now can start anywhere. A guy in NYC sees a plane go into the Hudson, and the world knows. Twitter’s community decides that Iran demonstrations are important while CNN is playing reruns for a weekend. And the implosion of old news into news is accompanied by a shift to a new atomic particle: links are the new stories. Links are flowing through the real time web like red cells in our bloodstream. Just as the digitization of music led to the end of albums and the emergence of the song as the irreducible element of music (d’uh), increasingly the ‘story’ around some event will be a collection of links, not 1700 words in the Sunday paper. And those links will be flowing hours, days, or weeks more quickly than what was considered breaking news coverage only a few years ago. Slow media is scrambling, and meanwhile we are seeing new companies scrmabling to meet the new tempo, the new imperative. Among other things, successful media enterprises will look much more like software companies than any other precedent.
Streaming will touch everything, insidiously. New notions of belonging, new modes of distribution of information (media), new management models and economics, neo-tribalism: all will be accelerated by this shiftiness in social scale. There will be a huge outcry against what emerges online. The enemies of the new will say what we are up to is illegitimate, immoral, irrelevant. They will tell us that we are turning our backs on real relationships and meaningful engagement. The business minded will say that maybe its good for the ‘consumer’ space, and the media will say we have thrown away objectivity and embrace nihilism. Meanwhile, we will press on. And new ways will lead to new tools, and new tools will shape us, and from that we will have a new culture, new values, new meaning.
One corner of the emerging world is web culture. It is perhaps a harbinger of what could happen in the larger world. Maybe it is like William Gibson wrote, “The future is already here. It is just unequally distributed.” I have characterized this (like others) as a movement from the center to the edge. The edge is where individuals relate to other individuals, and derive their sense of self and meaning from these relationships. And we know that this is a human universal: people everywhere are made human through their ties to others. This is how we root our beliefs and our aspirations -- when we are most happy, most involved, and most creative -- and when we turn away from these natural ties, things fall apart. Without that sense of belonging, we have alienation and hatred, we have people mistakenly believing that more -- more possessions, more money -- is better. Various people have taken to calling this future we are moving into post-industrial -- just as industrial growth is exploding in the developing world -- or post-ideological -- even as ideological battles confront us on every side. *I lump this together, perhaps unhelpfully, into the post-everything future.* Why do we say post, when it seems to be intensifying? Because there is no general belief in easy answers. Those that have studied the costs of the growth economy -- the core underpinnings of industrial growth -- have come to believe that is is unsustainable. *It does not seem that the ideas of westernized industrial growth and mass individualism is going to be sustainable, even while many in the developing world are watching Seinfeld reruns, wish for a refrigerator or a car, or the chance to shop in an air-conditioned mall.* Our old cultures have been stripmined too: the ancient relationship of people to the land and close group involvement has been converted to urbanism and alienation. *Mass agriculture in the name of low cost output has led to the largest migration of people from the land to cities in human history. There are over 200,000 slums in the world today, because people move to the city and cannot find meaningful work. There will be 2 billion slum inhabitants in 2030.* Meanwhile, on the edge, people are discovering all over again that connection to other people around issues of shared concern can become the defining source of happiness and purpose, in a way totally different from mass affiliation -- being a citizen of large and unresponsive country, where ‘culture’ has become a product of multinational corporations, churned out from music, movie, publishing, and television factories. *Our old dreams are manufactured. Our new dreams must be bottom-up, like connection on the web, or in wiring within our heads. If we are to make sense of the post-everything future before us, it will have to come from our conversations among ourselves, on a social scale in which we feel that we matter. * Post-everything will mean embracing something we know will involve us, leaving behind our second-class status as members of the mass audience, and become living, active participants in a reformed -- and highly social -- culture.
The Social Revolution: Ten Years Later, Looking Ten Years Ahead Stowe Boyd http://www.flickr.com/photos/lij/1739672/
Meaning Is The New Search Ultimately no human brain, no planet full of human brains, can possibly catalog the dark, expanding ocean of data we spew. […] We won't be surfing with search engines any more. We'll be trawling with engines of meaning. Bruce Sterling