I rarely comment on ‘Whatever’, but this time I did have something to say. In fact, this is something I’ve given quite a lot of thought to. As a result I managed to whip out something relatively cogent in the heat of the moment:
This is true of both Twitter and Facebook: they are ephemeral. Of the two, Facebook is more like a conversation–albeit not a comfortable one. Think of those parties where nearly everyone ends up in the kitchen having six simultaneous conversations on different subjects while showing their baby pictures.
Twitter, on the other hand, is like a stream of consciousness. Except it is like a stream of consciousness in a world with limited telepathy or with group minds. So this stream is a river of thought, shared among a self-selected coterie, into which you can dip at will.
As I describe them, neither is meant for ‘the ages’. Think about it; a party conversation or a passing thought are not things you put a great deal of effort into creating, nor do you expect to retain them and discuss them over the long term. They might spark a more durable work, an essay or a story or a blog post, but they themselves are the moths and butterflies of the noosphere.
And here we have why I like Twitter and dislike Facebook. (I mean, other than the fact Facebook is the purest, blackest, most Lovecraftian evil while Twitter is only normal corporate evil.) Basically it comes down to “I don’t much like those kind of parties.”
While, on the other hand, I do like Science Fictional ideas like ‘Group Minds‘. I mean, cool huh? Everyone thought gestalt entities and group minds weren’t going to happen until the Singularity sproinged, but here I can make a good case we have a sort of proto group mind going now on places like Twitter and Reddit and some of the more popular blogs. Only it is a useless form of group mind that spends more time on pictures of cats than it does on important things. Like ways to have useful group minds.
So, let’s take a shot at that here. Starting with what these kinds of sites have in common:
- They follow a ‘River of News‘ format, where you either partake of it in the now or it has gone by and you missed it (Google search notwithstanding, the most effective moment for these sites is the current one)
- They allow for opt-in group participation and provide some kind of feedback mechanism to let you know when that participation is effective (upvotes, retweets, comments)
- They have a large enough audience to reach critical mass
- They either enable a single cohesive interest group (blogs) or allow the audience to opt in to self-selected interest groups (Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr)
- They allow the audience to participate (blog comments) or even to become the creators (Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr)
But how useful are these kinds of sites? Well, frankly, not so much. Twitter has acted as a rallying place for that older kind of group mind: collective action. Blogs and sites like Reddit have done a good job of boosting the signal for news the regular media has ignored or even downplayed. Still, they aren’t helping to cure cancer or solve the energy crisis or any of the kinds of things real Science Fictional group minds would be good for. While the cat pictures continue with pride of place.
We do have a new kind of useful group site, one that is enabled and publicized by group mind sites like Twitter and blogs: sites like Kickstarter providing portals for crowd funding of everything from political campaigns to creative projects. These aren’t so much group minds as group efforts. Still, they do have a direct impact on the real world in ways cat pictures do not.
And that brings me to the conclusion of this rambling excuse for an essay: combining group action with group thinking. We’ve had some of that on the Open Source programming sites and have had for some time. In this way sites like Github and SourceForge are examples of working group minds accomplishing something useful. What we need is something focused on creating real things like Kickstarter combined with the brainstorming might of Twitter, the organization of GitHub, and the cohesive audiences of the Belief Circles in Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End.
Of course, this is a group mind we are talking about. Based on recent history, the most likely scenario is we end up with better cat pictures…