Thursday, July 15, 2010

Social Networks and Received Opinion

@EthanZ spoke about the internet at TED Global in Oxford this week. The video has not been not posted yet, so here are some key quotes from the summary by Jonathan Fildes (BBC News 15 July 2010).

The internet has not become the great leveller that it was once thought it could be. The web is now contrary to the original utopian vision and users focus on information from a handful of wealthy countries. It's making us 'imaginary cosmopolitans'.

Social networks make the problem worse with the majority of people sharing information with folk who share their world-view. Our world-view might actually be narrowing.

Tools like Twitter trap people in so-called "filter bubbles". The internet is too big to understand as a whole, so we get a picture of it that's similar to what our friends see. If you turn to your friends, eventually you get the wisdom of the flock.

The term "filter bubbles" is credited to political activist @elipariser. See Ethan's earlier post Eli Pariser on Filter Bubbles (March 2010).

This phenomenon is important from many perspectives. One question that particularly interests me is the way that these networks can create the illusion of improved intelligence, while actually doing no such thing.

wish, illusion
information gathering availability: fast, rich, high quality, unmediated, diverse homogeneous, filtered
sense-making & decision-making open, creative closed, doctrinaire
knowledge complete, consistent, strong, independent partial, partisan, weak, received opinion
learning progressive pseudo-learning
communication authentic vapid

Obviously it would be crazy to write off social networking and the internet as an inevitable producer of these effects - that would be the kind of crude technological determinism that gets the tabloid newspapers bewailing the Perils of Facebook.

Instead, the challenge is both to use the available human and technical networks more wisely, and to develop sociotechnical mechanisms that help to realise the original vision of these technologies and contribute to a greater and better distributed intelligence and understanding. Zuckerman talks ambitiously about mechanisms for amplifying underrepresented voices, and for discovering content through serendipity. He also talks about important new roles - for example curators to collect the content, xenophiles to bridge different cultures, working together to put content into context.

But even if we cannot transform the world overnight, we (ourselves and our organizations) can at least start to use these technologies in a more contingent manner, and with greater awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.

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