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Social Networks and Reintermediation of Web Information [Jun. 22nd, 2011|10:36 am]
A friend of mine did a post on social networks. I've been thinking about the nature of net communications for quite some time, and her post connects nicely to some of my long term thinking. (  www.opensiliconvalley.org/2011/06/open-forum-2011-social-media-new-rules-in-mobilizing-and-driving-impact/  )  Hence the following:

There is a thing in economics called disintermediation that became a big factor in the movement of money starting in the 80s, when it became possible to buy a CD in just about any bank in the country thorough your broker. This trend  has progressed to the point where you can now buy, online, just about any financial instrument you want without talking to a broker or having an account in a specific bank.  What has happened is that intermediaries have been removed; people deal direct.

In terms of information transmission, the net has always been strongly disintermediative; you can go direct to information that used to take some kind of specialist--even if only a reference librarian--to find.  The process has accelerated since the early 90s and seems to be continuing.

Which brings us to the classic problem since the time of Spinoza (reputed to be the last man to have read every book available in his time; following him it became simply impossible to do.) Diving headfirst into the information of the net is like trying to drink from a fire hose--the water is there, but it comes at you with such force and volume as to be stunning; you can rip your lips off! How do you find what is important, relevant, and accurate with such a large pool to dip into?

This is why even as the net began to disintermediate, we found ourselves hunting re-intermediating strategies.  One of the earliest and most successful is the Drudge Report--arguably the first news aggregator.  Yahoo as a home page with headline boxes in different areas of interest, Google search algorithms, all re-intermediate information to help us handle the flow.

The role of editor as a star in his own right is returning. What I mean by this is illustrated by the classic magazines of the 1st half on the 20th century in the U.S.--magazines such as Harper's, The Atlantic, The American Mercury, and others were famous because of the editorial staff which, under an editor in chief, found and developed talented stables of contributors, wading through tons of less talented submissions looking for the gems. Selecting an editor and an editorial board made or broke magazines in their heyday.

Something similar is happening now, with one downside--the uniformity of small subgroups that can reach critical mass to survive as groups with the network's ability to make geographical location irrelevant to information transfer. A person who wants to associate with left-handed redheads *only* was pretty much out of luck when he lived in a small town full of blond and brunet right-handers... but with the net open, such groups can self-select and bond in significant numbers. (This mirrors the effect of cities on social and cultural development-- cities support specialists in trades and occupations that small towns never could because there was an insufficient market for a person to make a living in a small specialty. )

Which brings us to social media.  The oldest form of human information transmission is the community; people tell things to their friends and family, who pass it along.  A person's community knows what interests that person without resorting to examination of a browser pattern; they are naturally well tuned intermediary aggregators.  The capacity of social networks to help people find communities of common interest and perspective is astonishing; those communities are automatically aggregators of high efficiency.

The downside is obvious: if everybody you know believes that the lost continent of Atlantis is actually the floor of the Mediterranean, you are not likely to be exposed to contrary views, no matter how well founded.  Your aggregating community will filter such nonsense out so you don't waste time with silly notions.

I agree with what my friend said came from Amra Tareen--communities don't, on the whole, report stories; they transmit them.  Where community members get the stories they pass on becomes crucially important... and is more and more absolutely impossible to control by people not members of the community in question.

On the whole, I tend to think this is a good thing. Groups will occasionally be seized with  silly ideas, some of them potentially dangerous (see "planking"), but humanity has learned to adapt to changed environments throughout our history, developing ways of reducing the risks and maximizing the benefits, whether it is fires for cooking or iPhones for tweeting.

But then I've always been a bit of an optimist...