O Serendip! How Twitter Solved the Greatest Challenge of the Century

O Serendip!

How Twitter Solved the Greatest Challenge of the Century: The Reciprocal Curation Engine

Nigel Cameron

Twitter still comes in for high-blown denunciations from Great Persons who have never used it. But I ventured to suggest the other day (in a tweet, of course) that it is now an open question whether anyone can be a paid-up member of the commentariat in 2015 without a Twitter handle. Because while it is presently used for a score of different purposes (from chat-chat among friends to crass marketing efforts to smart customer service to newsgathering that beats any other source) at its core it offers two interlocking experiences which deliver value so great it is hard to measure.

First is, as it were, research. Let’s be personal here. I follow around 1,000 people, a spread across the half-dozen fields of interest that attract and distract my attention: tech/futures, policy/politics, high culture, publishing, aspects of business/finance, and arcana like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Point is: I have 1,000 researchers, key thinkers and doers and scanners of every possible horizon, who funnel their best finds and their smartest comments to me: every day, all the time, and for no cost. The value added to my thinking is so immense I find it impossible to think of reverting to other modalities of gathering intelligence and intelligent commentary. The term of art for the vast Twitter output is the “firehose,” and the cap fits. Each and every day, my 1,000 hand-picked, diligent, smart researchers and commenters roll up their sleeves and send thousands of items my way, their firehoses of news and ideas and assessments trained on me from the directions of my choosing. These curators include some of the leading thinkers on Planet Earth; lesser mortals whose comments are as sharp as they are often amusing; diligent scanners of literature (some in many languages); and representatives of classes of person whose importance is high to the culture evolving around us (nerds, journos, pols, entrepreneurs, even a semi-celeb or two) – evolving in a manner best described (for devotees of evolutionary theory) as rapidly punctuated equilibria, with a heavy dose of Lamarckianism. So, first, Twitter is a tool for research which aside from various technical apps – like the spread of disease – gives me daily 100x what I could ever get from a research staff. And it comes pre-curated by people of whatever level of skill and judgment I choose.

Second, Twitter as cocktail party. 24/7. This vast research staff is also quaffing bubbles and engaged in constant chit-chat. One limitation on “firehose” language lies precisely here. In some respects it’s more like a game of enhanced frisbee. Person A passes to B – we can all see; B then adds some comment (expert, snark, both . . .) and on to C. Hey, who’s C? I take a look. C is fascinating; gets added to my staff of researchers and advisers forthwith. Not sure I agree with B, so I push back and offer a comment. And I thank A for sharing something important. Who can tell what A will do? A often responds, and we exchange. B passes on my comment (very common on Twitter, whether it’s complimentary or not) to his/her followers. C wonders who I am who now follows him/her and may decide to follow back. On it flows. And as we travel and write I end up meeting B or C or A (first time meetings with two of my Twitter friends last week). Knowledge drives relationships and relationships drive knowledge. And the potent digital fruit is served up: when VR meets IRL. The juncture of the digital and the analog; ideas and persons in fission. The congeniality is driving the research sharing.

What to make of this? Three things, for a start.

  1. The remarkable power of “reciprocal curation.” If all the smart people I can find start talking to me about the things that most interest them and most interest me, my knowledge will grow exponentially. If the only price I pay is to share what most interests me in return, we have the rudiments of Adam Smith in the realm of knowledge: We each pursue our interests; we all gain.
  2. Simplicity can lead to extraordinary complexity; in this case, barely through design and largely by happy accident. This global knowledge generator is at root a system for broadcasting text messages. While a thousand apps have sprung up to add third-party smarts (and profit), the core simplicity remains. Its power is, literally, immeasurable; the Princes of Serendip have won the lottery.
  3. Of all the “social media” platforms, Twitter stands out as the pathway to tomorrow. There’s a problem with “social media” as a category, since it makes too much of the commonalities of web-based collaborative efforts which are becoming increasingly differentiated. (The blanket use of the term may also be partly to blame for the manner in which distinct platforms seek to mimic each other, especially as monetization is the question.) The capacity of my brain to tap into the best and the brightest, and offer back what I have in return, is beyond remarkable. Here is the Yellow Brick Road. It’s no more possible to conjure up our lives tomorrow than to enable an unborn child to come to terms with kindergarten. But analogy is our friend, and it’s all we have. Think Twitter on steroids and we begin to grasp the key to the 21st century’s enormous knowledge ramp-up through reciprocal curation. Mass-texting just discovered transcendence.

Why does this matter quite so much? Because it addresses the fundamental question faced by human minds (and for that matter machine minds) in Century 21: how to move from essentially indefinite mounds of data to understanding, to wisdom, to judgment, and finally to choices.

What Twitter has demonstrated is reciprocal curation as both the answer and attainable; and while AIs will play ever larger parts in our lives, Twitter demonstrates the power of curation by networks of persons. Twitter itself and the Twitter-like entities that will follow are less generic “social media” than reciprocal knowledge engines built on social platforms. What follows will be multilayered and vast – driven by every internet-user on Planet Earth who is not fixated with gaming or which will have its own role in defining tomorrow. Or lolcats, about which I am less sure.

Follow my tweets, if you like, at @nigelcameron.

Re-posting this revised version from an original of two or three years back. It has also appeared elsewhere.

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