We all live in hierarchies. That’s our curse as primates. And always, ever always, status has been conferred on those in the know. To be among the cognoscenti is to possess a mystique, an allure, which confers authority and commands a high position in human hierarchies. Marketers understand this. Advertisers understand this. Now it’s time the rest of us learn it. Or rather, it’s time that we learn that this is the main force driving our social networks.
If you want to understand the emergent behavior of “always-on” users, observe what they already do. The ad-hoc techniques developed by the swarm of network users to manage the avalanche of media inevitably become the automated techniques of tomorrow. The first and most important of these emerging techniques is known today as “link sharing,” but the simplicity of this term belies its significance. In order to understand how important link sharing is, we must take a look at the ad-hoc behavior which it formalizes.
If the surveys are to be believed, we each spend up to two hours a day working with our electronic mail. Some of this electronic mail is dedicated to the minutiae of our business lives – meetings, planning, and execution of commercial activities – but, for many of us, it is also a continuously reinforced connection to our social networks of friends and family. Some of this correspondence is the simple reaffirmation of contact, but, increasingly, these emails contain little more than a URL to some piece of network-accessible content, be it a web page, or an MP3 audio file, or a video. They’re good for a few minute’s diversion, and if we like what we see, we’re bound to pass it along.
This seems an innocuous activity, but it is the essence of the new era of the Internet. The entire idea of “viral” distribution of media is predicated on this behavior. If you’ve seen JibJab’s “This Land” – as eighty million people already have – or that video of two Chinese university students singing a Backstreet Boys tune, or the inarguably odd video of the exploding body of a beached whale, you have participated in viral distribution. Every joke forwarded – that being the first example of this phenomenon – forged an emergent web of social connections.
Social networks, flexible and dynamic, constantly reconfigure themselves based on the perceived value of relationships of each member within the network to every other member. Laid out against this is another metric: expertise. One friend may be an omniscient source of information on IT issues, while another might be expert in dance culture, another, television, and so on. No one connection absorbs all of the attention within a social network; in an ideal situation, everyone contributes something utterly unique, drawn from their own strengths. Furthermore, because our digital selves are all fundamentally egomaniacs, clamoring for attention, recognition, and ascendancy in the social hierarchy, we’re constantly competing for attention within our social networks, each constantly trying to outdo one another, with the newest, hippest, coolest thing. This constant struggle to maintain our position in an ever-changing social order produces a kind of selection pressure – not unlike biological evolution – that quickly winnows winners from losers. (Tabloid newspapers have been fighting this same battle for a hundred and fifty years, but now the capability – and, consequently, the conflict – has become pervasive.)
What are the observable characteristics of this behavior? It breaks down into three basic domains of activity:
A) Finding. A successful competitor for our limited attention knows how to find just those bits of information which are sure to excite interest. These individuals have deep knowledge in narrow fields – we might call them “nanoexperts.” A nanoexpert maintains connections into their community of interest; that’s their passion, and the wellspring of their capability.
B) Filtering. An expert absorbs a lot of information, and much of it is judged to be of little value – perhaps even annoying – to the social network which the expert serves. An expert knows how to judge not just the quality of information, but its relevance. This activity is not automatable; while Google can tell you if a website is popular, based on the number of links into it, Google can’t digest a tidbit of data and tell you if it’s of any significance. Salience is a characteristic of sapience. A good filter – like a good editor – improves the quality of information by cutting it down to size. (Sites like Digg, where users vote articles into front-page relevance, represent an attempt to automate filtering. But Digg displays no real expertise, and won’t until it dissolves into an ever-increasing folksonomy of baby Diggs.)
C) Forwarding. Once something has been found, once it has been weighed, it needs to be distributed. This is perhaps the most difficult (and most social) part of the process. We could easily blast everything we find to everyone we know. But we’d make a lot of enemies in the process, and destroy our rank in every social network. Instead, we dole out expertise parsimoniously, choosing where and when to reveal it, in whatever manner best supports and extends our social standing. Cognoscenti maintain their value in a social network as much by withholding information as by revealing it.
These three activities – the “Three Fs” of finding, filtering and forwarding – scaled up to the swarm of a billion Internet users, describe the world we see today. This is more than the “death of marketing,” more than a world where a few “cool-hunters” detect and amplify the trends of the mass culture. In this new social order, there is no mass market, no mass media, and no mass mind: instead, there are networks of experts, each feeding into collective networks of knowledge, social networks which both within themselves, and, pitted against each other, struggle to raise their standing in the world.
As we move into a world where these ad-hoc techniques become formalized, supported by tools such as del.icio.us, Flock and – perhaps most significantly – Yahoo!, these link-sharing networks will become the individualized equivalent of the mainstream media. More and more of our precious attention is being taken up by content that’s been forwarded to us, and every day, in every way, we’re getting better at finding, filtering and forwarding. How the media industries of the present day – predicated on mass communication to mass audiences – negotiate the transition into a world of microaudiences, each fiercely guarded by an army of ever-vigilant nanoexperts, remains an open question.