We live in a world of accelerating change. As our communication technologies evolve, it becomes easier to connect more and more of us around the planet to each other. The web collapses space and time, dissolves geographic boundaries, and gives us windows into each other’s worlds.
This is causing shifts in the way individuals perceive themselves, their immediate relationships with friends and communities, and the context of how they relate to society at large.
David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, prognosticates, “Just by increasing the efficiency of communication and reducing friction in relationships between people, particularly on a global basis, it will lead to a more integrated sense of humanity.”
While the potential for an evolutionary leap is there, it’s up to us to raise our awareness of the possibilities. Could global connectivity empower human and societal development? Could it help us form cross-cultural relationships, find our tribes, and build thriving communities? Is it possible to design towards sustainability and resilience?
Below are some thoughts from our interviewees for The Future of Facebook Project, a 6-part series covering the risks and opportunities social media offers us as a global society. The themes below – social network analysis, filter bubbles, collective intelligence, and aspirational futures – will be covered in the upcoming Future of Facebook: Society focus video.
Harnessing the Value of Our Social Graph
Facebook calls the map of your connections the “social graph,” which is where the value of the platform is based. We’re beginning to get a better sense of the relationships between people, the shared interests or beliefs that bind them, and the sentiment around the decisions they make.
But, we still haven’t scratched the surface of how to leverage our social graph and build effective networks.
How do we build a social graph that bring us greater value and benefit? How do we form relationships that create more opportunities in our lives to succeed and grow?
Social network analyst (SNA) Valdis Krebs suggests building networks that bring in a diversity of perspectives from multiple fields and interest areas: “If you sit at this interesting juncture between many information flows and knowledge exchanges, you’re in a good spot to see innovation and share it with all the groups you’re connected to.”
Krebs explains the value of “network weaving,” the practice of cultivating the connections in your social graph: “You add in a few key connections that aren’t visible right now, and all of a sudden you go from a moderately efficient network to a very efficient network.”
As more people realize the untapped wealth contained in their networks, expect to see more services and apps providing SNA features.
Personalization or Echo Chamber?
Facebook, like hundreds of websites, offers recommendations and customized newsfeeds based on personalization algorithms. In an age where choice is limitless and attention increasingly scarce, this filtering and tailoring of information is valuable to many.
“Facebook will be able to augment your life because it knows all about your social graph and your likes and tastes, so why not use that data to help you and to make your life richer?” asks Richard MacManus, founder of ReadWriteWeb.
While it may be convenient to have content curated based on your interests and past click behaviors, there is also the danger of having a very biased and skewed version of reality served to us.
Ethical futurist Jamais Cascio explains, “As Facebook increasingly becomes a filter for how we encounter information online, the kinds of things that Facebook determines are unimportant – that they’re not gonna pay attention to or link to – become determinants of how millions of individuals see the world. Facebook becomes that ultimate filter.”
A recent piece in Computerworld highlighted how personalization algorithms actually stereotype you and then hide information from you based on that stereotype. Check out Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble to help understand what’s at stake when someone else decides which information you see.
Collective Intelligence & the Global Brain
Social networks provide us the opportunity to link up with others, cluster around shared interests and causes, and exchange knowledge, resources and expertise. We’re only beginning to see the potential for humanity to evolve towards more intelligence, as we learn to think as part of a larger consciousness.
“I think of [Facebook] as the emerging nervous system of society,” says Internet entrepreneur Nova Spivack. “It could reduce the barriers between our minds and actually help us function more collectively in groups, something towards groupmind, collective consciousness, or what people may call the global brain.”
Sibley Verbeck, founder of the Electric Sheep Company, echoes this metaphor: “You can think of it in terms of a brain, in that if you can have a large leap in the communication ability within all the synapses within your brain, while maintaining your ability to do the overall functions, of course that’s going to increase intelligence.”
Thinking of ourselves as part of a global brain requires a reframing what collective intelligence could really mean. In this view, each of us is a node in a much larger network. We can choose to act as filters and curators of information, send signals instead of noise, and channel flows of intelligence towards the people and groups that can most benefit from them.
Aspirational Futures for Social Networks
Facebook has made it fun and easy to connect to others and share opinions, photos and links. We’ve located long-lost friends from high school, planted carrots on our virtual farm, and shown how much we “like” everything. But at some point it begs the question, “What next?”
What are the real opportunities of a globally connected society, and what is Facebook’s role in their facilitation?
Rita J King, VP of Business Development at Science House, imagined a scenario where small businesses could form and grow. “If I were running Facebook, I would definitely imbue it with more opportunity to create entrepreneurial ventures, to get them funded, and to direct hybrid reality events that tie Facebook back to the physical world and allow people to connect in deeper and more meaningful ways. Any ubiquitous platform that doesn’t encourage the development of robust business relationships as part of one’s social life will be out of step with the immediate future.”
Author of the Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls, advocated for interoperability across platforms and the ability to take your social graph with you. “I would start by open sourcing every bit of code I possibly could, adopt every possible open protocol for interacting with other entities on the web and on the ‘net, and create the most open possible APIs for every possible service. I think Facebook needs to adapt themselves to a world in which there are many choices other than just them, or they will suffer the fate that most monopolies suffer in the long run.”
Futurist Chris Arkenberg sees social networks as a tool for demystifying politics and building a more engaged citizenry. “I think Facebook absolutely has the capacity to influence the way people think and the way people understand the world, to clarify fact from fiction, and particularly expose the way that moneyed interests are actively trying to manipulate the narrative in order to facilitate their goals over the very real needs of the global population – the needs of the common people.”
Jerry Paffendorf, founder of LOVELAND Technologies, believes an interactive ‘gamification’ layer on the web will lead to an explosion of collaboration and social innovation in the real world. “Turning these tools into something that can help us coordinate action or incent us to make things, to go places, and to build stuff with other people is clearly something that’s sitting there waiting to happen.”
The responses hint towards the real power and opportunities we hope Facebook and other communication technologies will afford us. While the long-term implications of a networked society are still unknown, there are choices to make now which will shape its direction. It’s up to us to realize the potential to build meaningful relationships, healthy communities, and real wealth, and the necessity to have communication infrastructures to enable it.
Connection is happening. Social acceleration is happening. Now let’s design for empowerment, collaboration, and positive action.
Venessa Miemis is a Media Studies graduate student at the New School in NYC, exploring what happens at the intersection of technology, culture, and communication. Connect with her at www.emergentbydesign.com and on Twitter @venessamiemis.