As I wrote back in September
, we're getting closer and closer to the moment when any individual's ability to access any information is ubiquitous and instantaneous. The day when any bit of knowledge is merely a thought away. This realization of a Functional Collective Conscious is technology's natural and inevitable destiny, from the printing press to radio to TV, and now the internet. Each innovation has added a layer of communication that makes our ability to share information increasingly effortless.
But in order for any individual to access this shared knowledge in a meaningful way, the information needs to be organized. Right now, the best organizer of information we've seen is Google. But Google, and the other search engines, only organize information at a collective scale, rather than at a personal scale. Google results reflects the Internet's consensus opinion of what your chosen topic means. But it can only guess what your chosen topic means to you
. This personal relevance is the key to making the collective conscious functional.
How will it be possible to organize every bit of information in a way that will be personally relevant to each individual?
This is where Social Network Sites (SNS) come in.
(I'd be remiss if I didn't address the big news from the past couple weeks, so here's my two cents. Google's announcement of the OpenSocial API
and Tuesday's introduction of Facebook Ads
have sparked a tremendous amount of chatter around the blogosphere. I'll leave it to the online pundits to analyze the pros and cons of the specific aspects of these offerings; I'd just like to mention their relevance in the long term. OpenSocial represents a major alignment with the progressive internet tenets of universal standards and shared intellectual property. It will prove to be an important victory in the fight to give individuals the ability to control their own online existence in whatever way they choose. Facebook Ads is simply a new experiment in engagement and word-of-mouth marketing. We'll see how engaging it is, and how much word-of-mouth it inspires.)
After reading this terrific summary of the history of SNS
by danah boyd
and Nicole Ellison
in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communications, I realized that the conception of SNS as "sites," per se, with unique domains or urls, doesn't leave room to appreciate their grandest long-term ramifications. The greatest promise of SNS is a seamless network of personally relevant digital channels through which we will be able to share and retrieve information that is personally meaningful and useful. Our experience with SNS up to this point, has merely been an exercise in adding that digital layer to our real-world relationships. We've just been playing around with various prototypes. Eventually, though, we won't have a "site," but rather a unified chart of all of our social relationships that will exist independently of any website or web-based service. These relationships will be organized in a dynamic and organic method. Relationships will be intuitively grouped in broad categories like college friends or co-workers, as well as idiosyncratic categories like friends who like David Lynch or friends who like the ocean. These various groups may overlap, and each individual will create a unique network structure.
To some extent we have already started to do this. Think of your Labels in Gmail. And hopefully this will describe Facebook's "Sort out your friends" feature
, which is currently in development. The difference is that right now we have to author a separate structure for each domain - one for Gmail, one for Facebook, etc. None of them will let us take our friends with us when we leave the walled garden. Eventually they will.
What role do SNS play in organizing every bit of information in a way that will be personally relevant to each individual?
Well the first step is to appreciate that everything can be anything to anyone. Just as we identify relationships with many overlapping labels, we do the same for ideas. How would you categorize "books?" Literature? Research? Entertainment? Hobby? Paper Product? It depends on your perspective. But the great thing about the digital universe, is that "books" can be all of these things simultaneously.
Each of us implicitly categorizes every bit of information that we encounter. And like our organic categorization of our relationships, we apply the same intuitive method to the categorization of knowledge. No two individual's systems of categorization will be identical. Will there be some overlap between certain individual's categorization? Absolutely, and that overlap is part of what identifies a given community. For instance, the group of people who agree that striped tube socks and mustaches look cool are known as Hipsters. There will also be overlap between categorization structures of entire communities, e.g. Hipsters and creepy Uncles who still think they're living in the 70's. (I couldn't resist adding this Jessica Hagy
Where do these intuitive personal categorization systems come from? What inspires each of us to choose particular associations for books or tube socks? They are inspired by our relationships; by the people we've known, the people we know, and the people we want to know. Our perception of the world in which we live and what we learn about it is framed by social context. We evaluate information's relevance based on the communities that a particular categorization will connect us to or alienate us from.
So now our self-authored Social Network has profound importance for making our ubiquitous and instantaneous access to information useful. The network is the ultimate filter for personal relevance. When we search, we will search through a system that understands what the topic means to us. And when we share, we will be able to pass on the content to only the people who we know will find it compelling. Some tools are beginning to attempt this. Think of the "post to _____" links you see popping up everywhere. "Share on Facebook" "Digg This" "Post to del.icio.us" They are all ways for us to pass on information that we think will be compelling; but, at best, the tools only have a rough inkling of how to filter that content in a meaningful way for our community of listeners.
Our social network is the chocolate to infinite information's peanut butter. And when that network is liberated from the domain in which we choose to create it or manage it, it will become the key to unlocking the full potential of technology's greatest promise: the Functional Collective Conscious.Comments