[This is a short précis of the keynote I will be presenting in Montreal for Infopresse, on 26 October 2011, for the conference called Réseaux Sociaux (Social Networks).]
The Urban Web: An Architecture Of Cooperation
The world is becoming increasingly urbanized, and we have just passed a tipping point where just over 51% of the world’s inhabitants live in cities and their immediate surroundings. The US is leading this trend, with fully 82% of citizens living in urban settings. At the same time, billions of people are spending significantly greater time online, connected through social networks. 65% of adult web users in the US now use social networks, which is the third highest app used after email and search engines. And for young people, over 80% use social networks.
So these two trends are shaping both: urban life is increasingly physically and virtually high density. Urbanites have always had more social contacts than those in the country, but now the intersection of virtual connection, the increasingly networked social spaces of cities — wifi in cafes and public spaces, ubiquitously connected devices like iPads and smart phones, and wired workplaces — are creating a melting pot of high density social connection of an unprecedented degree.
Cities, as Geoffrey West and others have shown, have superlinear economics: as cities grow, the costs associated with adding more people, businesses, and transportation decrease. New York City, the largest US city, has the lowest amount of CO2 produced per capita in the US, for example, and the lowest electricity use per capita.
Damon Centola and others have shown that increasing social density increases the speed that innovative ideas pass through a group of people, and this is true online and off. As we connect to more people, and they are connected to yet more people, many which we don’t know, we are surrounded by shells of others — social scenes — that exert an influence on us. And as you increase the number of connections people have, you increase the force of this influence, like increasing air pressure or gravity.
We are setting the stage for an unprecedented experiment in an augmented urban life, with a secondary layer of social connection through social networks, where ideas, trends, news, beliefs, and values will stream and take root at an unimaginable pace.
Cities are not controlled by a central agency, at least in the Western neoliberal approach to urbanism: it is a piecemeal and haphazard model of development and societal integration. Cities are connectives, not collectives. People in urban settings are likely to be wildly heterogeneous, and not generally working toward shared aims: instead, they are cooperative. They accord with basic conventions that serve the whole — like driving on the right, or standing in lines for service — but are actively pursuing individual aims, perhaps to the detriment of others.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This regional intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated agreements about what the city is meant to be, and do. Everyone can inhabit their own city.
The Arab Spring revolutions that leverage social networks are an example of the power of messiness at scale. The inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — has been a major impact on the uprisings it supports. The Egyptian revolution had no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees, or like the daily commute in New York City.
The participants in a social revolution — of whatever kind — do not have to agree in all particulars, or even have a common agenda. There is an architecture of cooperation latent in social networks, where the dark matter of influence supports bottom-up connective action, rather than top-down collectives.
And the grafting of social networks into every-larger and complex cities may be like the evolution of the mammalian cerebral cortex, basically a higher order nervous system, capable of an altogether different sort of mind, operating at a new tempo, and capable of new forms of thought.
Media, business, and society will be changed inexorably and massively by these transitions, and the rate of fusion of the urban and the web is accelerating.
Claudia Driefus, In Professor’s Model, Diversity Equals Productivity
[interviewing Scott Page, University of Michigan economist]
Rather than ponder moral questions like, “Why can’t we all get along?” Dr. Page asks practical ones like, “How can we all be more productive together?” The answer, he suggests, is in messy, creative organizations and environments with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences.
“New York City is the perfect example of diversity functioning well,” he said in an interview. “It’s an exciting place that produces lots of innovation and creativity. It’s not a coincidence that New York has so much energy and also so much diversity.”
Q. In your book you posit that organizations made up of different types of people are more productive than homogenous ones. Why do you say that?
A. Because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it.
People from different backgrounds have varying ways of looking at problems, what I call “tools.” The sum of these tools is far more powerful in organizations with diversity than in ones where everyone has gone to the same schools, been trained in the same mold and thinks in almost identical ways.
The problems we face in the world are very complicated. Any one of us can get stuck. If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place.
But if we have people with diverse tools, they’ll get stuck in different places. One person can do their best, and then someone else can come in and improve on it. There’s a lot of empirical data to show that diverse cities are more productive, diverse boards of directors make better decisions, the most innovative companies are diverse.
Breakthroughs in science increasingly come from teams of bright, diverse people. That’s why interdisciplinary work is the biggest trend in scientific research.
Q. The term “diversity” has become a code word for inclusion of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. Is that what you’re talking about?
A. I mean differences in how people think. Two people can look quite different and think similarly. Having said that, there’s certainly a lot of evidence that people’s identity groups — ethnic, racial, sexual, age — matter when it comes to diversity in thinking.
Here’s the bottom line: I myself am an affirmative action child. I got into the University of Michigan in the 1980s on a program. I’m from a rural part of Michigan. No calculus in high school. So I was given bonus points toward undergraduate admissions.
If the policy had been to consider mainly grades and SATs and not to make room for some geographic diversity, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten in.
This is another thinker contributing to the discussion about superlinear scaling requiring messiness at scale. One metric that probably approximates messiness is diversity: the more diverse the employees in a company, the more uneven their response to stresses, the more varied their approaches to seeking shortcuts, or how — or with who — they build bridges across barriers.
Ingram picks up on the flimsy reasoning in Gladwell’s recent redux of his ‘Twitter is no revolutionary tool’ argument:
After weeks of discussion in the blogosphere over whether what happened in Tunisia was a “Twitter revolution,” and whether social media also helped trigger the current anti-government uprising in Egypt, author Malcolm Gladwell — who wrote a widely-read New Yorker article about how inconsequential social media is when it comes to “real” social activism — has finally weighed in with his thoughts. But he continues to miss the real point about the use of Twitter and Facebook, which is somewhat surprising for the author of the best-seller The Tipping Point.
Gladwell’s tone is bizarrely anti-modernist:
Right now there are protests in Egypt that look like they might bring down the government. There are a thousand important things that can be said about their origins and implications: as I wrote last fall in The New Yorker, “high risk” social activism requires deep roots and strong ties. But surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.
This argument is motivated by a desire to square his pitch of social tools as being inadequate support for revolutionary activity, as he advanced in his Small Change piece last fall. He argued then that revolutions needed to be controlled through strong ties — like Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Rights movement.
Mark Ingram continues, citing Zeynep’s Tufecki’s discussion of strong and weak ties in a rebuttal of Galdwell’s Small Change arguments:
But as sociology professor Zeynep Tufekci argues in a blog post responding to Gladwell — and as we argued in a recent post here — the point is not that social media tools like Twitter and Facebook cause revolutions in any real sense. What they are very good at doing, however, is connecting people in very simple ways, and making those connections in a very fast and widely-distributed manner. This is the power of a networked society and of cheap, real-time communication networks.
Weak ties can also connect to and become strong ties
As Tufekci notes, what happens in social networks is the creation of what sociologist Mark Granovetter called “weak ties” in a seminal piece of research in the 1970s (PDF link) — that is, the kinds of ties you have to your broader network of friends and acquaintances, as opposed to the strong ties that you have to your family or your church. But while Gladwell more or less dismissed the value of those ties in his original New Yorker piece, Tufekci argues that these weak ties can become connected to our stronger relationships, and that’s when real change — potentially large-scale global change — can occur.New movements that can bring about global social change will still require people who interact with each other regularly, and trust and depend on each other in somewhat dense networks. Or only hope is if those networks span the globe in a tightly-knit, broad web of activity, interaction, personalization. Real change will come only if we can make friends we care about everywhere and we make bridge ties that cover the world in a web of common humanity.
Trufecki and Ingram are on to something, but they — and Gladwell — miss something very basic about the nature of Twitter and other social tools, something critical to revolution. Ideas spread more rapidly in densely connected social networks. So tools that increase the density of social connection are instrumental to the changes that spread.
The Granovetter distinctions between strong and weak ties are not as relevant in this context as the density of connections in the network.
When people are connected to a large number of other people through a real-time social medium like Twitter, information and ideas will travel faster across the population than when people are connected to a smaller number of people. And, more importantly, increased density of information flow (the number of times that people hear things) and of the emotional density (as individuals experience others’ perceptions about events, or ‘social contextualization’) leads to a increased likelihood of radicalization: when people decide to join the revolution instead of watching it.
This is another example of messiness at scale, which is why we find the most vibrant art scenes in large cities, and why technology regions — like Silicon Valley and New York City — where network connections are rich and dense, lead to the highest innovation. With a sufficient degree of connections, change and innovation can become superlinear, meaning that adding more people to the network increases the possibilities for additional change and innovation at a rate faster than the increase of the network. It’s like critical mass in nuclear explosions.
These are all revolutions, although what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia, and other locales are political ones. They all require social density — one element of messiness at scale — to act as the matrix in which they grow.
Gladwell is right, that older revolutions relied on different tools, like newspapers and telephones, to reach the necessary social densities so that people would be radicalized.
But the fact that other revolutions used other tools does not mean that the tools used today aren’t instrumental, and doesn’t mean that the inherent character of today’s tools — real-time, distributed, decentralized — hasn’t had a major impact on the movements it supports. On the contrary: the Egyptian revolution has no central planning, no cadre surrounding a Mao-like figure up in the hills, no government-in-exile pulling the strings. It is as messy and diffuse as a thousand swarms of angry bees.
Gladwell and others will continue to miss what is happening, out in the open, because they deny the nature of social culture. At its core, Gladwell’s arguments are not about the way revolutions work, but a denial of the strength of social culture: the culture that the social web is engendering, wherever it touches us. Wherever we connect.
At the risk of putting my fingers in the sausage machine, let me add a touch of nuance:
Winer is ideologically opposed to closed, proprietary approaches like that of Twitter (or, by extension, of Flipboard):
Dave Winer, What I mean by “the open web”
Anyway, here’s what I meant by “open web.”
I meant not in a corporate blogging silo.
If I put stuff in Twitter, the only way to get it out is through a heavily regulated and always-changing API. It will change a lot in the coming months and years. It will certainly narrow more than it expands. I feel very confident in predicting this, because I understand where Twitter is going.
If you put stuff in Facebook, it’s even more silo’d than it is in Twitter.
However, if you put stuff in WordPress, even on wordpress.com, you have full fluidity. You are not silo’d. You can get data in and out using widely-supported APIs that are implemented by Drupal, Movable Type, TypePad, etc etc. At least there’s some compatibility. And in a pinch you could probably move your content to a static website and have it be useful.
If you write in static HTML and RSS, you’re very portable, there will be no lock-in at all.
So to the extent you’re locked in, that’s the extent you are not on the open web. The perfectly open web has zero lock-in. The silos are totally locked-in and therefore not on the open web.
Winer’s complaints are about control of our content: that we should be able to easily manage what we write. It’s a political argument.
But his points fly in the face of innovation, where a Twitter or Quora or Facebook create very different — and not solitary — models of open social discourse, which need to be managed in ways that are different from old school blogging. It’s not every man for himself, anymore. Time is a shared resource on today’s web: our time is not our own, anymore. And that’s largely good.
I liken this problem to the trade offs inherent in living in large cities versus towns or the country. There’s more noise, bigger crowds, and longer lines at the DMV: more things that we can’t control, or where our control is restricted, relative to folks living in bucolic Des Moines.
Only in cities we get superlinear scaling, as Geoffrey West and his colleagues have shown:
Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Turns the City Into an Equation
When a superlinear equation is graphed, it looks like the start of a roller coaster, climbing into the sky. The steep slope emerges from the positive feedback loop of urban life — a growing city makes everyone in that city more productive, which encourages more people to move to the city, and so on. According to West, these superlinear patterns demonstrate why cities are one of the single most important inventions in human history. They are the idea, he says, that enabled our economic potential and unleashed our ingenuity. “When we started living in cities, we did something that had never happened before in the history of life,” West says. “We broke away from the equations of biology, all of which are sublinear. Every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. There is no equivalent for this in nature. It would be like finding an elephant that’s proportionally faster than a mouse.
I maintain that Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘closed’ systems are really something else: they are dense and complex social systems, more like modern cities than Web 1.0 publishing platforms. And, like cities, there is more going on, less being controlled by specifications like RSS, and the food is better, the music is better, and there is more dangerous sex taking place.
Brian Eno uses the term ‘scenius’ to define the quality of the great cities, their ability to foster deep shared understanding and purpose for large networks of people. This collective intellect arises from messiness at scale, not carefully mediated and clearly defined standards.
Said differently, the best food comes from cities with the highest number of health code violations, and the best art is produced where the largest number of building code infractions are found.
So, if you are looking for clean bathrooms and no traffic jams, stay in Iowa. But it is in cities — dense, loud, unplanned, messy — where the breakthroughs emerge.
Getting back to the specific case, here, let’s look at Flipboard. Flipboard rejects the use of neat-and-tidy RSS, and reaches through the URLs it finds in Twitter to directly paw the text, images, and links placed into articles and posts, and then it chooses what to display based on a proprietary algorithm inside the guts of the app, not based on the publisher’s RSS specification.
Flipboard, Twitter, and other dense, complex social tools create a messier world, one that has superlinear scale. The tradeoff between complete ‘openness’ (or individual control of information and its experience) and superlinear social density is one I am willing to make. And so are all the users of these tools, or should I say, residents of these cities?