Twitter still comes in for high-blown denunciations from Great Persons who have never used it. But I ventured to suggest the other day (in a tweet, of course) that it is now an open question whether anyone can be a paid-up member of the commentariat in 2011 without a Twitter handle. Because while it is presently used for a score of different purposes (from chat-chat among friends to crass marketing efforts to smart customer service to newsgathering that beats any other source) at its core it offers two interlocking experiences which deliver value so great it is hard to measure.
First is, as it were, research. Let’s be personal here. I follow 300-400 people, a spread across the half-dozen fields of interest that attract and distract my attention: tech/futures, policy/politics, high culture, publishing, aspects of business/finance, and arcana like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party – twin pillars of a generating #exopolitics, on which more anon. Point is: I have 400 researchers, key thinkers and doers and scanners of every possible horizon, who funnel their best finds and their smartest comments to me: every day, all the time, and for no cost. The value added to my thinking is so immense I find it impossible to think of reverting to other modalities of gathering intelligence and intelligent commentary. The term of art for the vast Twitter output is the “firehose,” and the cap fits. Each and every day, my 400 picked, diligent, smart researchers and commenters send thousands of items my way, their firehoses of news and ideas and assessments trained on me from the directions of my choosing. These curators include some of the leading thinkers on Planet Earth; lesser mortals whose comments are as sharp as they are often amusing; diligent scanners of literature (some in many languages); and representatives of classes of person whose importance is very great to the culture that is evolving around us (nerds, journos, pols, entrepreneurs, even a semi-celeb or two) – evolving in a manner best described (for devotees of evolutionary theory) as rapidly punctuated equilibria, with a heavy dose of Lamarckianism (poor dear loveable Lamarck, once sent to the Gulag in the show-trial oldstyle Commie way in which science tends to proceed, has had something of a rehab thanks to epigenetics and whatnot; which reminds me of Arthur Koestler and The Case of the Midwife Toad – it would be interesting to find out if anyone who reads C-PET’s modest garden hose has read that . . .handy reading for members of the Campaign Against Groupthink). So, first, Twitter is a tool for research which aside from various technical apps – like the spread of disease – gives me daily 100x what I could ever get from a research staff. And it comes pre-curated by people of whatever level of skill and judgment I choose.
Second, Twitter as cocktail party. 24/7. This vast research staff is also quaffing cocktails and engaged in constant chit-chat. One limitation on “firehose” language lies precisely here. In some respects it’s more like a game of enhanced frisbee. Person A passes to B – we can all see; B then adds some comment (expert, snark, both . . .) and on to C. Hey, who’s C? I take a look. C is fascinating; gets added to my staff of researchers and advisers forthwith. Not sure I agree with B, so I push back and offer a comment. And I thank A for sharing something important. Who can tell what A will do? A often responds, and we exchange. B passes on my comment (very common on Twitter, whether it’s complimentary or not) to his/her followers. C wonders who I am who now follows him/her and may decide to follow back. On it flows. And as we travel and write I end up meeting B or C or A (met a Tweep for the first time today at an airport, by arrangement), or on the phone (happened a couple days ago), or for lunch (recently): knowledge drives relationships and relationships drive knowledge. And the potent digital fruit is served up: when VR meets IRL. The juncture of the digital and the analog; ideas and persons in fission.
What to make of this? Three things, for a start.
- The remarkable power of what I am terming “mutual curation.” If all the smart people I can find start talking to me about the things that most interest them and most interest me, my knowledge will grow exponentially. If the only price I pay is to share what most interests me in return, we have the rudiments of Adam Smith in the realm of knowledge: We each pursue our interests; we all gain.
- Simplicity can lead to extraordinary complexity; in this case, barely through design and largely serendipitously. This global knowledge generator is at root a system for broadcasting text messages. While a thousand apps have sprung up to add third-party smarts and explore third-party profit, the core simplicity remains. Its power is immeasurable; The Princes of Serendip have won the lottery.
- I remarked in an earlier commentary that of all the “social media” tools Twitter stands out as the pathway to tomorrow. I’m not enamored of the thought of “one great inter-connected world brain,” language proposed by the editors of a National Science Foundation volume a decade back. But the capacity of my brain to tap into the best and the brightest, and offer what I, Nigel, have to offer in return, is beyond remarkable. This, here, is the Yellow Brick Road. It’s no more possible to conjure up our lives tomorrow than to enable an unborn child to come to terms with kindergarten. But analogy is our friend, and it’s all we have. Think Twitter on steroids and we begin to grasp the key to the 21st century’s enormous knowledge ramp-up through mutual curation. Twitter is not yet another photo-sharing app. Mass-texting just discovered transcendence. It’s both unique and, potentially, omnipotent.
Why does this matter quite so much? Because it addresses the fundamental question faced by human minds (and for that matter machine minds) in Century 21: how to move from essentially indefinite mounds of data to understanding, to wisdom, to judgment, and finally to choices.
What Twitter has demonstrated is mutual curation as both the answer and attainable; and while AIs will play ever larger parts in our lives, Twitter demonstrates the power of curation by networks of persons. Twitter itself and the Twitter-like entities that will follow are less “social media” (I dislike that category for several reasons) than mutual knowledge engines. What follows will be multilayered and vast – driven by every internet-user on Planet Earth who is not fixated with gaming, which will have its own role in defining tomorrow, or lolcats, about which I am less sure.
Follow my tweets, if you like, at @nigelcameron.