Just after the Iran election, Twitter emerged as news. It seemed not only to be able to share information about what was happening in Iran with folks following events around the world, but Twitter was also encouraging the ability of protesters to congregate spontaneously and keep each other informed of developments in real time.
I work with Left/Progressive organizers across the country, talking with maybe six to ten out-of-state activists each week. In a week I’m in e-mail communication with several dozen. In Illinois, far more. Over the course of a three-month period, I cycle through communication with almost 600 organizers in 30 states, trying to touch base with each four times a year. In addition, I consult with In These Times, a revered Left/Progressive print publication. I mostly work with In These Times as a local expert on the Internet and social media.
So, I have a pretty broad view of ongoing American Left strategies and tactics to accomplish specific goals. Regarding my area of expertise, the Internet, the independent Progressive movement is at the very beginning of becoming aware of the power of horizontal, online social networks.
Right now, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and the others are enhancing communication by increasing the number of people we are in contact with every day while seeking to make those communications clear enough to be useful. We are provided more and more effective sorts, functions and information enhancement features. Youth trained in multitasking transition quickly to new applications. Older folks aren’t seeing the advantages of letting go of what they experience as a more intimate, personal experience characterized by fewer contacts.
Developments using Twitter in Iran underline the difficulties of the medium when it comes to integrating or synthesizing information. The wisdom of the crowds is marginalized when the crowd is looking for high quality information, and all it has is agreement. Twitter and social networking media are failing to offer insight.
The reason for this is that the applications are not tracing the movement of information in real time, tracking the lineage of ideas as they move across the medium. The applications are not noting when ideas evolve nor are they paying attention to the identity of the individuals who are present when a new idea emerges. Furthermore, they are not indicating the individuals who are instrumental to an idea’s propagation.
This is not science fiction. Now that memes or words representing specific thoughts or concepts can be traced as they spread across a network of users, those memes can be followed in just the way that in biological evolution we can track the evolution of species over time.
With Twitter or a Twitter-like application, we can not only trace the evolution of ideas, we can put into the hands of users an ability to conduct searches for these ideas and their particular evolution trajectories. In other words, users can request reports like we now conduct a Google search, reports that track the speed, span, depth and breadth of ideas as they move across the web.
For example, in Iran let’s say the conversations that citizens are having regarding the exact kind of administration they would like to see are integrated with where in the country people are congregating with those opinions, who the individuals are that are instrumental in the distribution of those ideas, how fast the ideas are spreading and how many degrees of separation are being generated at what rate. Imagine anyone being able to issue a report collating that information, using that information to draw conclusions, conclusions fed back into the idea distribution network to be able to be traced for their effect.
The result would not be the kind of chaos observed just after the elections but an automatic, lightning speed, dramatic realignment based upon high-quality, real-time information available to anyone who wants it. This is the equivalent of nature conducting its usual healing in an area devastated by catastrophe. With countless species in close communication with one another using the information-sharing channels characteristic of natural systems, unique integrations can emerge as a result of adjustment to new conditions.
For this to work in society, as in nature, there can be no hierarchy. Every person in the system gets access to the reports that offer insight into the nature of the information. Whereas now each of us uses “search,” with the direction we are going there will be a second level, a meta level, where each of us uses “report.” At this level the wisdom of the crowd can become conventional wisdom, investing every individual with enhanced understanding, not just enhanced communication.
There is a not so subtle change that accompanies this shift in perspective, this embracing of the meta level of systems operations. This change is a change in identity. As we as individuals begin to understand and embrace a viewpoint characteristic of the way many individuals experience the evolution of information, the identity shift that the young in our communities are experiencing will receive an exponential boost.
Observe that the young are now members of communities, online social networking systems, several orders of magnitude greater than anyone not online. This is having a profound effect upon how we experience ourselves as individuals. Our peer groups are now far larger, more unique and often self-selected; they are not inhibited by geography. Our identities are shifting. We are voluntarily participating in that process.
Consider this ability to romance the wisdom of the crowds so that this understanding becomes easily accessible with the possibility of being further influenced. Now consider this effect upon individual identity. The commons will become common. We will not be able to think of ourselves without considering others. We are talking about a feminization of society.
As I was observing Twitter in Iran this June, these two things came to mind. Social networking does not just have to be only about communication. Social networking can also be about integration.
Where there is integration, there is a shift in identity. Social networking can change who we think we are.
Andrew Lehman, a regular contributor to The Public Record, operates Andrew Lehman Design, Ltd., a web firm with over 400 clients specializing in local businesses and non profits. He is co-director and founder of the 1100 organization, Peace, Justice and Environment Project. Andrew is on the board of directors of In These Times. He blogs daily at neoteny.org and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org