The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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When data atrophies thought

I’ll collect three observations. The first is from Peggy Orenstein in the New York Times Magazine:

I’m not wishing the Internet away. It has become so integral to my work — to my life — that I honestly can’t recall what I did without it. But it has allowed us to reflexively indulge every passing interest, to expect answers to every fleeting question, to believe that if we search long enough, surf a little further, we can hit the dry land of knowing “everything that happens” and that such knowledge is both possible and desirable. In the end, though, there is just more sea, and as alluring as we can find the perpetual pursuit of little thoughts, the net result may only be to prevent us from forming the big ones.

The second from grumblebee’s Ask MetaFilter comment:

One can get by in our culture without problem-solving, so why bother with it? By get by, I mean that one can make a good living, have a big house, kids, etc. without having to solve intellectual problems.

And — most important — one can be a “smart person” (as our culture defines it) without solving problems. Most people want to be smart. They want to be seen as smart by others. Our culture sends a really strong message to them, which is “memorize a lot of facts and you’ll be smart.” My guess is most people think they ARE doing rigorous problem solving when they see something that needs to be done and have to search through their mental database to find the right fact or the right formula. I guess this IS a kind of problem solving, but it’s the easiest kind. It’s similar to solving a problem by searching on google until you find the answer.

Those two are percolating in my mind alongside this, from Tim just now:

It turns out that social networks are actually terrible places to try to send a message en masse. At some point, they stopped being a high-function version of your email address book, and became a kind of low-power broadcast antenna. It might be a great station, but it’s static-y, there’s too much filler, and it’s all too easy to drive out of range.

The proliferation of small facts can short-circuit a more profound understanding. (Of course this is the pattern I’d find here, right?) But what do we do with this, exactly? Especially in domains like social networking. How do we build systems that enable higher-order intelligence to thrive?

(See also “The intelligence pyramid.”)


Jake says…

It seems to me that this goal will be undercut as long as advertising drives the design of such systems.

Tim Carmody says…

Okay. I’ll expand on my own analogy of social networking sites being like television. Right now, it’s like TV in the decadent laugh-track age when the three networks were past their prime but were still the only games in town.

We’ve got a few different choices, but they’re basically all omnibus options, designed for universality. (Like somebody – Jake? – said on the other thread, we’re on Facebook because everybody’s on Facebook.)

There was a while there – that first glorious burst on Friendster – when if you were on a social networking site, you were actually a self-selected subculture. You were usually 1) young, 2) cool, 3) nerdy, 4) pretty deeply invested in the internet… a media hipster, or someone who knew one.

Now, your mom, your cousins, your boss, that lady you met that one time who gave that talk, your high school classmates — they’re all on Facebook. And so you’re basically watching Wheel of Fortune until The Cosby Show comes on, hoping that it might be a new one.

Really, what we need is not a place where everyone is — a dying mainstream network. We need to create the PBS and HBO of social networks — places that are not exclusive but slightly more intentional, places that intend to create and preserve that higher-order intelligence, and drive the cultural conversation.

Rex Sorgatz joked a few weeks back that “the cool kids” should just all migrate back to Friendster, kind of like re-gentrifying a neighborhood after a real estate bubble’s burst. Maybe.

Or maybe it needs to be even more targeted. Maybe even organized around content, or content providers. Imagine if a site like Clusterflock just turned from a group blog into a small social network, linking together readers and writers who were all generally interested in the same stuff we are, who could all post/import updates and create content. (Which is still a broad swath.) Or if had a real social nerworking dimension. Sometimes, really good sites about local politics can take on this quality — everybody gets to know everybody, but they’re first oriented around shared areas of concern, and at least in some cases, shared principles about how to move forward.

And maybe for the individual – or at least the individual who cares about things like enabling higher-order intel­li­gence on the web – we’ll have to give up on social networking as a one-stop shop. We’ll RSS 3-10 based on our areas of interest, checking in on each like we’d check in on blogs we read.

In short, for better programming, we need more channels.

Rex Sor gatz joked a few weeks back that “the cool kids” should just all migrate back to Friend ster, kind of like re-gentrifying a neigh bor hood after a real estate bubble’s burst. Maybe. I love this.

But Tim, I think your HBO/PBS idea, is more spot on, except carry it forward to Home and Garden Network, etc.. I don’t *want* everyone on the same social network. I wish that my friends from high school and my friends from college and my friends from work and my friends from temple were usually in their different compartments. But it’s useful to be able to cross pollinate them. So facebook is nice as a bucket, but the groupings and limited profiles (which I think CAN actually be very powerful) are not intuitive enough to make the garden walls tall enough.

Tim Carmody says…

Really, what you want (I think) is universal updating. So you have a central place to change your profile and post links and status updates, etc. (Kind of like the Twitter-importing you can do on Facebook now.) This information by default gets pushed to all of your social networks —,,, (you guys should consider it, Andrew! It’d be THE hub for media-savvy nerds on the net), unless you opt to protect or restrict them.

The big difference would be how you READ social networks — and comment and respond to what folks have to say. Each would offer you a different kind of content, and different modes and levels of sociability. Some of them, you’d just set and largely ignore. Some of them, you’d TiVo your favorite parts. And others, you’d check in for updates ravenously, daily or hourly. (Maybe these, too, would actually get pushed to you via RSS.)

Even advertisers could benefit from this — a more homogeneous audience means better tailoring and a higher success rate. And there’s no reason why Facebook or Newscorp or whoever couldn’t own dozens of interrelated networks, like ClearChannel and radio stations.

Tim Carmody says…

Also — we need a Tivo! We need to be able to say, “yeah, I’m going to be gone this week… but save all of the status updates from Matt, Saheli, Andrew, and Howard so I can read them when I get back.”

Twitter TiVo. This is, in fact, a smart and doable product idea.

This is in fact, exactly how I really use Twitter in a non-mobile sense. I.e. when I’m using Twitter out in the world, it’s either in the original public-diary sense of What Are You Doing, sharing my little vignettes of the real world OR its little mini conversations and findings that keep me going in line at the grocery store. But in front of my desk top, what I really want is to collect all the great links that you guys (and others) post, and that function gets lost when I’m running around town. TiVo would be perfect.

No matter what social network we come up with it’s either going to fill up with the unwashed masses or it’s not have the pulsating buzz of hive mind that makes Facebook and Twitter so vital. If you’re worried about problem solving, go solve a problem. If you’re worried no one is ever going to solve problems again, go out and find some problem solvers to work with. You can probably find them on Facebook.

Matt, getting back to your more general question:

I have actually been thinking about this because I came across this announcement/request-for-entries from The Tech Museum in San Jose: a contest searching for“a practical method, tool or technology that connects people so that they collectively act more intelligently.”

And this made me realize that I was no longer even sure what “more intelligent” would mean in this context. You have n people, each with “intelligence” level l_i (running from 1 to n), and somehow by connecting to each other they have :

a) a total combined intelligence that is somehow greater then Sum(l_i)
b) the ability for any (i) one of the n people to use an intelligence that is greater than l_i

Which of these is the criterion leads to one sort of questions; answering how on earth l_i is measured and what it’s good for and in what context the “result” would happen is another set of questions, and thinking about if there’s some default method of combination that leads to a minimum amount of combined intelligence which we are trying to “top” is yet another set of questions.

But really, it all boils down to what Peggy Orenstein was talking about: what the hell is all this stuff for? What are we trying to do? And I think you are right–the big questions (whatever they may be) to easily get lost in the easy questions that can be answered by searching and understanding.

I think the Metafilter commenter is unduly harsh b/c it is, in fact, a very important problem-solving skill to be able to intelligently make use of a set of Google queries. And we have evolved to keep these very fuzzy databases nicely sloshing around in our skulls, and their very fuzziness and irrationality sometimes makes them pop up beautiful little connections and solutions that an algorithmically reasonable computer would never find. But I think we too often mistake describing and tying up the problem with solving it. We get lost in the little details.

Social networking sites as I have experienced them are all very good at sloshing together a stew of all our little details. They are not so good for making a big project or melodramatic action happen. Any sort of “goal” doesn’t come preformatted (cooking recipe, party invitation, online petition) into a bunch of little steps will jiggle useless in your brain, unable to escpae out, if your only tool is a single social network or web 2.0 thingamjig. Ironically, when someone else comes along and figures out how to put this and that together to get their goal done (say, make a crowd-sourced encyclopedia or write a crowd-supported book) it starts the project on the road to becoming one of these preformatted tasks that others can just pick up and try without thinking too hard. But first someone has to put the task together, and I’m not sure if there’s a social networking tool that can really make empower that in a repeatable way.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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