While the potential for an evolutionary leap is there, it’s up to us to raise our awareness of the possibilities. Could global connectivity empower human and societal development? Could it help us form cross-cultural relationships, find our tribes, and build thriving communities? Is it possible to design towards sustainability and resilience?
Below are some thoughts from our interviewees for The Future of Facebook Project, a 6-part series covering the risks and opportunities social media offers us as a global society. The themes below – social network analysis, filter bubbles, collective intelligence, and aspirational futures – will be covered in the upcoming Future of Facebook: Society focus video.
Harnessing the Value of Our Social Graph
Facebook calls the map of your connections the “social graph,” which is where the value of the platform is based. We’re beginning to get a better sense of the relationships between people, the shared interests or beliefs that bind them, and the sentiment around the decisions they make.
But, we still haven’t scratched the surface of how to leverage our social graph and build effective networks.
How do we build a social graph that bring us greater value and benefit? How do we form relationships that create more opportunities in our lives to succeed and grow?
Social network analyst (SNA) Valdis Krebs suggests building networks that bring in a diversity of perspectives from multiple fields and interest areas: “If you sit at this interesting juncture between many information flows and knowledge exchanges, you’re in a good spot to see innovation and share it with all the groups you’re connected to.”
Krebs explains the value of “network weaving,” the practice of cultivating the connections in your social graph: “You add in a few key connections that aren’t visible right now, and all of a sudden you go from a moderately efficient network to a very efficient network.”
As more people realize the untapped wealth contained in their networks, expect to see more services and apps providing SNA features.
Personalization or Echo Chamber?
Facebook, like hundreds of websites, offers recommendations and customized newsfeeds based on personalization algorithms. In an age where choice is limitless and attention increasingly scarce, this filtering and tailoring of information is valuable to many.
“Facebook will be able to augment your life because it knows all about your social graph and your likes and tastes, so why not use that data to help you and to make your life richer?” asks Richard MacManus, founder of ReadWriteWeb.
While it may be convenient to have content curated based on your interests and past click behaviors, there is also the danger of having a very biased and skewed version of reality served to us.
Ethical futurist Jamais Cascio explains, “As Facebook increasingly becomes a filter for how we encounter information online, the kinds of things that Facebook determines are unimportant – that they’re not gonna pay attention to or link to – become determinants of how millions of individuals see the world. Facebook becomes that ultimate filter.”
A recent piece in Computerworld highlighted how personalization algorithms actually stereotype you and then hide information from you based on that stereotype. Check out Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble to help understand what’s at stake when someone else decides which information you see.
Collective Intelligence & the Global Brain
Social networks provide us the opportunity to link up with others, cluster around shared interests and causes, and exchange knowledge, resources and expertise. We’re only beginning to see the potential for humanity to evolve towards more intelligence, as we learn to think as part of a larger consciousness.
“I think of [Facebook] as the emerging nervous system of society,” says Internet entrepreneur Nova Spivack. “It could reduce the barriers between our minds and actually help us function more collectively in groups, something towards groupmind, collective consciousness, or what people may call the global brain.”
Sibley Verbeck, founder of the Electric Sheep Company, echoes this metaphor: “You can think of it in terms of a brain, in that if you can have a large leap in the communication ability within all the synapses within your brain, while maintaining your ability to do the overall functions, of course that’s going to increase intelligence.”
Thinking of ourselves as part of a global brain requires a reframing what collective intelligence could really mean. In this view, each of us is a node in a much larger network. We can choose to act as filters and curators of information, send signals instead of noise, and channel flows of intelligence towards the people and groups that can most benefit from them.
Aspirational Futures for Social Networks
Facebook has made it fun and easy to connect to others and share opinions, photos and links. We’ve located long-lost friends from high school, planted carrots on our virtual farm, and shown how much we “like” everything. But at some point it begs the question, “What next?”
What are the real opportunities of a globally connected society, and what is Facebook’s role in their facilitation?
Rita J King, VP of Business Development at Science House, imagined a scenario where small businesses could form and grow. “If I were running Facebook, I would definitely imbue it with more opportunity to create entrepreneurial ventures, to get them funded, and to direct hybrid reality events that tie Facebook back to the physical world and allow people to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways. Any ubiquitous platform that doesn’t encourage the development of robust business relationships as part of one’s social life will be out of step with the immediate future.”
Author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls, advocated for interoperability across platforms and the ability to take your social graph with you. “I would start by open sourcing every bit of code I possibly could, adopt every possible open protocol for interacting with other entities on the web and on the ‘net, and create the most open possible APIs for every possible service. I think Facebook needs to adapt themselves to a world in which there are many choices other than just them, or they will suffer the fate that most monopolies suffer in the long run.”
Futurist Chris Arkenberg sees social networks as a tool for demystifying politics and building a more engaged citizenry. “I think Facebook absolutely has the capacity to influence the way people think and the way people understand the world, to clarify fact from fiction, and particularly expose the way that moneyed interests are actively trying to manipulate the narrative in order to facilitate their goals over the very real needs of the global population – the needs of the common people.”
Jerry Paffendorf, founder of LOVELAND Technologies, believes an interactive ‘gamification’ layer on the web will lead to an explosion of collaboration and social innovation in the real world. “Turning these tools into something that can help us coordinate action or incent us to make things, to go places, and to build stuff with other people is clearly something that’s sitting there waiting to happen.”
The responses hint towards the real power and opportunities we hope Facebook and other communication technologies will afford us. While the long-term implications of a networked society are still unknown, there are choices to make now which will shape its direction. It’s up to us to realize the potential to build meaningful relationships, healthy communities, and real wealth, and the necessity to have communication infrastructures to enable it.
Connection is happening. Social acceleration is happening. Now let’s design for empowerment, collaboration, and positive action.
Check out interview clips on the Future of Facebook youtube channel, and updates on Facebook, Twitter, and the blog.
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grady mcgonagill said:
I’m intrigued by the tension between Pariser’s cautions about the Web contributing to increasing individual silos and the enthusiasm of Spivack and Verbeck over the potential of the Web to more fully connect us all together. It raises the question of which forces are stronger: the centrifugal forces, pulling us apart, or the centripetal ones, binding us more closely together? It’s too soon to know, but I find myself hopeful that the Web is fostering the emergence of a commons on a global scale, one which enhances our collective intelligence. I’d like to elaborate by drawing on some notes from a piece I was just writing on this subject.
There are voices other than Spivack and Verbeck worth noting. Judy Breck asserts that “the network, patterning structure of what a mind can know is mirrored in the network, patterned structure of the Open Internet,” which leads to the conclusion that “what is known by humankind has spontaneously nestled into the Internet and begun interconnecting itself there, as an embedded cognitive network” (Breck, 2005, p. 1). Similarly, former Whole Earth Catalog editor Kevin Kelly has hailed the emergence of a “global mind” (Kelly, 1994, p. 202). He foresees the rise of “large-scale sentience,” in which individual minds are subsumed into “planetary thought—on the way to comprehending itself” (Kelly, 2010, p. 331, 333).
Perhaps more important, there are things happening that reflect these theories. Beth Kantor and Allison Fine point to the activities of internet-savvy “free agents”—“individuals working outside of organizations to organize, mobilize…” (2010, p. 15). I see such free agents as a critical adaptive mechanism, serving as antennae to “sense and respond” to needs that are going unmet and problems that are going unrecognized or that seem to defy solution. I believe they can help steer us toward more just and sustainable systems, nationally and globally.
And there are other signs of forces pulling us together rather than apart. Increasingly, individuals and organizations are using the tools of the Web to come together across sectoral boundaries, finding common cause in the effort to address “wicked” problems that defy solution from within any single sector. Social entrepreneurs are applying using business practices to address social issues. And multi-sector “megacommunities” of communication and problem solving are emerging around particular business enterprises.
Put all this together and you can make the case that they are a new global expression of an old institution—the “commons,” a central gathering place in a community where people come together to solve problems and celebrate all that binds them together. I see the emergence of a new virtual global commons, which will be a vital source of new leadership for addressing stuck, global problems.
Venessa Miemis said:
i agree that a new virtual global commons is emerging.
as to ‘the forces’ that might bind us or pull us apart –
in my opinion, it’s a human choice. the ‘forces’ are our intentions. the web isn’t going to “do” anything, any more than the telephone “does” anything. it’s a communication technology that enables us to exchange knowledge and resources, but if we choose not to take that information back into the real world and implement solutions, then change is not going to magically happen without human involvement. the web is an interface, not a destination. if we can’t take what we learn from each other online and go apply it somewhere, then we have chosen to limit the impact it could have.
re: “internet-savvy free agents”….. that’s definitely how i like to think of myself. i research all these things independently and blog about them for exactly the reason of trying to highlight the most interesting and inspiring initiatives i can find. no one pays me to write here. i do it because i care, and i want to see us tip the balance towards empowerment and building local resilience and sustainability.
thanks again for your thoughts.
Awesome compilation, Venessa. Thank you for bringing these visionary voices together and illuminating parts of the road ahead in such a clear way.
Wanting to add to the signal, let me reflect my understanding of
Rarely am I sure who can most benefit. How would I ever know? I live with the compromise of channeling flows towards who I think might benefit and rely on people’s perception filters to sort out what is a good match for each. In return I may or may not gain social currency of helpful reputation.
Here is Eli Pariser talking at TED about the filter bubble. http://on.ted.com/9HAi
Add-on, from this personal eureka moment (in the shower).
While the individual has a hard time trying to know which people or groups benefit the most from channeling useful signals towards them, it is this sharing attitude, combined with the personal or institutional filter bubbles that gives the network the emergent property to “know” who benefits most. Out of the firehose we filter the flow we feel relevant for us right now.
If we filter too narrowly and amplify enough we may cause a feedback loop, the echo chamber.
We prefer sources that have proven their value over time. Better information finds us. Yaay!
Venessa Miemis said:
love the insights a shower brings 😉
Venessa Miemis said:
sure, makes sense. i have no idea who reads this blog or skims my tweets, but i do try to cc people when i think they might enjoy or benefit from the information i’ve compiled. the more i build actual relationships with people and understand the goals they are trying to achieve, the better i can curate information i send to them. this method is personal and intimate, and though it doesn’t “scale,” it does bring purpose to my life and makes me feel part of a real community of practice.
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Venessa I think the key here is this: “Just by increasing the efficiency of communication and reducing friction in relationships between people, particularly on a global basis, it will lead to a more integrated sense of humanity.” – it is the speed of the transfer of affects. The rate of it across cultural divides is something that goes far beyond levels of intention, like those you speak of here: “in my opinion, it’s a human choice. the ‘forces’ are our intentions. the web isn’t going to “do” anything, any more than the telephone “does” anything.it’s a communication technology that enables us to exchange knowledge and resources, but if we choose not to take that information back into the real world and implement solutions” – in social media, and each platform has different thresholds, human cognition is reaching new barriers.
It is not just a transfer of “knowledge” or “information” that we then process. When I literally “see” a brutal regime guy down an innocent, this is not the same thing as reading about it in a sidebar in the NYTimes. When I watch an eagle care for it’s young in real time in it’s nest like in how conservation was forwarded by web cam instead of a multi-million dollar zoo: http://bit.ly/eBG70X – These time thresholds, the more we are able to, or forced to project “sameness” onto what we are interpreting, the way we are able to identify across many of the built up cultural distinctions, is what is change us. Social Media is becoming an organ of perception.
I love your blog, luck to have found you via @emahlee – look forward to reading you more.
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