Trending Now

A skewed web: Innovation is in the outskirts of social media

As I discussed in my post last month, it’s a skewed Web out there. A multitude of online social filters were developed over the last 15 years to address our perennial information overload curse. From Google’s page rank, we went all the way to tag clouds, social bookmarking, Twitter trending topics and Gmail’s Priority Inbox, trying to find ways to make what matters float to the top. However, most of these social filters are based on some variation of a “majority rules” algorithm. While they all contributed to keep information input manageable, they also skewed the stream of information getting to us to something more uniform. Will crowdsourcing make us all well-informed drones? Ultimately, it may depend on where you’re looking at, the center or the fringe of the beehive.

Honeybees with a nice juicy drone

Image by dni777 via Flickr


Almost two years ago, Clay Shirky boldly stated that information overload was not a problem, or at least not a new one. It was just a fact of life at least as old as the Alexandria library. According to Shirky, the actual issue we faced in this Internet age would be that of a filter failure: our mechanisms to separate the wheat from the chaff were just not good enough. Here is an excerpt from his interview at CJR:

The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case. So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with del.icio.us, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do.

While some still beg to differ about information overload not being an issue – after all, our email inboxes, RSS readers and Facebook and Twitter streams never cease to overwhelm us–we tend to welcome every step in the evolution of smarter filters.
The whole lineage of social filters, from Google’s page rank, passing through Digg and Delicious, culminating with Twitter’s trending topics, mitigated one problem–information overload–but exacerbated another one: we were all getting individually smarter, but collectively dumber. By letting the majority or the loud mouths dictate what was relevant, we ended up with a giant global echo chamber.

We were all watching Charlie biting Harry’s finger, and Justin Bieber trying to convince (or threaten) us that we will never, ever, ever be apart. That Ludacris video surpassed 300 million views in seven months in YouTube alone, taking their all-time #1 spot. An unverified claim about Bieber using 3% of Twitter’s infrastructure being passed as news by traditional media outlets is just the last example of how far we went down the madness of crowds road.
br />This of course is not a new problem. Back in the early 1980s, MTV was running Michael Jackson’s 14-minute “Thriller” video twice an hour. The trouble here is just the magnitude of it. A potential downside of this mass-media-on-steroids uniformity is that a homogeneous environment is not the best place for innovation to flourish. Borrowing from paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould: transformation is rare in the large, stable central populations. Evolution is more likely to happen in the tiny populations living in the geographic corners: “major genetic reorganizations almost always take place in the small, peripherally isolated populations that form new species.”
If you are looking for the next big thing, or trying to “think different,” or to be creative and innovative, you need to look beyond the center. The core will tell you what’s up, so that you’ll be “in the know.” The fringe will show you what’s coming next. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future is peripherally distributed.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Avatar

Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Discussion

  1. Avatar Jen @ Auto Transport

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post particularly the last paragraphs. I have not come across the study that says evolution happens not at the center of the hive but at the corners, but I totally believe it. Being bombarded with the same stuff over and over again does make for clone drones and it’s difficult to be original in a society like that. You’re even shunned for it. All this information overload – maybe it’s time to unplug the computer and turn off the TV.

  2. Avatar Aaron Kim

    Jen,
    Thanks for the comments. You may want to check “The Panda’s Thumb” for some more interesting insights. I’m reducing significantly my TV watching. As for the Internet, I’m trying to balance between mainstream content and obscure sites. I wish I could read more in other languages to diversify the input even further.

  3. Avatar Melissa White

    Thats’ a very good point that you raise in this article. We seem to also have a tendency to insulate ourselves from fringe ideas, which for some are for the good (see crackpot theories), but also bad (see latest innovations), where it takes an amazing amount of energy to penetrate the centre, but once done, it almost instantly becomes mainstream.

  4. Avatar Aaron Kim

    Melissa, good observation about how fast a peripheral innovation can go mainstream. The whole theory about speciation happening in the fringe tries to explain why the fossil record does not show a gradual transformation from a dominant species to the next one. Right or wrong, the explanation would be that the process of a new species taking over and the previous dominant one becoming rare or even disappearing happens too fast in geological terms. There will always be controversy about that theory being correct or not, but as a business metaphor it seems to hold well.

Back to top