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The world as we know it is in disruption. Maybe it’s always been in disruption, pushing us through cycles of apparent chaos so that evolution can continue and new paradigms emerge. Thanks to social technologies, we’re growing into a globally connected communication system, and seem to be heading towards a tipping point. But what is it that we’re transitioning to?

Maybe we’ve forgotten the bigger picture. The Web was never intended to be about marketing, banner ads, and spam; it was intended to be about learning, sharing resources, and attaining a deeper level of understanding of each other and the world around us. The latter is happening, albeit slowly. I wonder if reframing the experience might help us accelerate the process.

I’ve been thinking about what that would look like, and what it is we’re really trying to achieve. I just read a piece on Edge by David Gelertner, titled ‘Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously.’ In it, he provides an overview of “where we’re at” with the Web – a world of information, activity streams, and NOW; flooded and drowned by immediacy:

The Internet increases the supply of information hugely, but the capacity of the human mind not at all.

I think he grazed over an incredibly important idea, but never went further to develop it. Earlier in the piece, he said something that also hints at this “big idea”:

It has always been harder to find the right person than the right fact. Human experience and expertise are the most valuable resources on the Internet — if we could find them.

So the information is only half the battle. Now we need people to filter and understand it.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time on the web; reading, learning, watching. Only in the past six months have I decided to experiment with intentionally growing a personal learning network. I’ve written before about how I’ve been using Twitter for personal growth (How to Use Twitter to Build Intelligence), and now I’m focusing on how to build the social capital within my network through “network weaving” and what could probably be referred to as “targeted sharing.”

I’m becoming convinced that this is the purpose of the web: to use it as a tool to enhance both ourselves and the network.

I think the web, in it’s nowness, has tricked us into a constant state of reaction. The information is streaming all around us, and without a focused mindset of intentional purpose in place, we are not in control. Even as we’re posting (which we often confuse with ‘creating’), what we post is usually in reaction to something else, or worse, an echo of it. In our social networks, we’re weaving intricate representations of our identities, posting our interests, photos, and status updates – but these are not ‘creating’ either, but rather asserting. “THIS is who I am. THIS is what I’ve done.” None of these things are creating.

I think, as a society, we have lost ourselves.

The Internet didn’t cause the degradation – we’ve been slowly breaking down for decades – but the Web may be pushing us in the wrong direction because of how the experience is framed. Everything is about the information “out there,” how to search it, filter it, and tag it. But where does that leave US?

I’ve danced around this subject for months, not knowing quite how to bring it forward. But perhaps what’s needed is to be blunt. Before we can hope to advance forward as a species, I think we should turn the focus away from what exists out there, and instead turn inwards and look at ourselves.

I see the web as a tool for evolving our consciousness. Not just to be more present or mindful, or more empathetic, but to actually develop to be more fully human. We must understand the implications of our human agency, and learn to cultivate the forces inherent within us that enable us to impact the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about tagging, and folksonomies, and shared language, and found it interesting that in our obsessive desire to label literally every thing around us, we haven’t yet thought about how we define ourselves. (And I don’t count a Twitter bio of ‘social media expert’ as self-defintion).

I’m talking about really reflecting on our Strengths, the combination of things that make each of us both unique and united. There is currently no tool or app out there of which I’m aware that would allow us to describe ourselves and each other in a way that puts a focus on self-development and social capital amplification.

If we shifted the way we talked about ourselves, would there be a shift in our ability to grow? And further, would it help us to assemble dynamic teams and find the kinds of people we need in order to launch initiatives and take action?

As we become more interconnected and accessible, we need to be able to search for each other not only by topic of interest, but by the types of people with whom we’d like to collaborate. I imagine an index that would travel with us around the web, comprised of our strengths, our skills, and our social connections. As networks take precedence in the way we orient ourselves on the web, it will be useful to have visual maps of how we’re connected. Our personal skill sets, knowledge, and expertise will become our virtual resumes, constantly updated and vetted in real time. And our strengths are our underlying ‘human factors’ that act as the foundation for our personal operating systems. This might emerge as a visualization, or possibly as a series of tag clouds. Here’s a few examples of the types of words I think would be used in a “social tagging system.”

[Update: A tag cloud is just one example of what it could look like. It’s hard to put things that may boil down to ‘tacit knowledge’ into words. Another way this could go is via images, like archetypes or badges.]

I think we’ve suffered too long in fitting ourselves into roles and job descriptions instead of choosing to operate in accordance with our strengths. If we define ourselves by a job title, we attach ourselves to prestige, influence, and power. We compete for limited positions, and discard our true selves in place of fitting a mold.

But what happens now that we live in an era where our knowledge, creativity, and ingenuity are being acknowledged as the source of our wealth? What happens when we exchange value as a result of the limitless potential of our strengths? If we shifted the focus, we could each be allowed to develop and excel in the ways we’re naturally inclined to do. If we know what those strengths are and how to harness them, we’ll be able to use the Web more effectively as a tool for learning and for collaboration.

It will take a combination of self-awareness, self-assessment, and some soul-searching, but I think this is a key element in honing ourselves so we can benefit from our collective intelligence. I think it starts with developing a shared language of how we want to define ourselves, and which strengths and values we want to cultivate as we push society to the next level.

There is no longer a scarcity of information. We’re saturated by it. What we need to know now is how to combine the people together who will know how to use it.


From the Twittersphere

@ehooge: recommended The Oxford Muse

The Change Journey

research: You Are Who You Know: Inferring User Profiles in Online Social Networks