You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The power of serendipitous findability

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, March 22 2009

[Last Wednesday, I pinch-hit for Clay Shirky (who was homebound with bronchitis) at the inaugural gathering of "The Little Idea," the spawn of Ari and Jonathan Melber, who dreamed up the notion of getting a bunch of folks together in a bar to hear one person speak for ten minutes, no Q&A, and then much imbibing. Here's a slightly polished version of my remarks.]

How many of you get twitchy when you can’t check your email or your mobile or your Twitter or Facebook account? How many of you are thinking right now, I wish I had my laptop? How many of you have ever experienced losing your device, or having to send it away for repair?

It feels like a lost limb, no?

Well I’m here to say it’s all for the good that you’re feeling twitchy.

That twitch makes me optimistic about the future. Why?

Three reasons.

1. Because I believe in the power of a small group of people to change the world. As Margaret Mead said, nothing else ever has.
2. Because I believe that the more we decentralize control of information and increase our abilities to dig up facts, the better decisions we’ll make.
3. Because a lot of us are deciding to live more of our lives in public and as a result, pool our brains.

But why am I more optimistic now than at any time in my life? Because I think we’ve never had such good small-group making tools or such good information-connecting tools. We’re developing a global social nervous system. As a result, I think bull-shit is in trouble.

And it’s all because of serendipitous findability—the odds that you will fortuitously connect with someone you don’t know but share an interest with, or the odds that you will learn something timely or surprising or valuable to you.

That’s what the twitch is about: improving the odds of a chance meeting: Chance meetings between people, and chance meetings between facts, and chance meetings between people and facts.

Interactive communications technology is all about upping the odds of a chance meeting. It’s the combination of search + living in public that makes this possible.

Five years ago, I wrote an article for The Nation called “The Rise of Open Source Politics,” which was all about the ways that I thought open source practices and culture were beginning to affect the political arena. While I’m not entirely sure that original meaning of “open source” can be directly applied from the software development world to politics, the phrase had a certain evocative power, which was good.

But here’s what’s important to me. Because some tiny number of people are intensely interested in the intersection of “open source” and politics,” they’ve googled that phrase and, thanks to the power of search and living in public, they’ve found me. Just as important, I’ve found them. And while not every one of them has turned into a life-long friend or collaborator, these chance meetings have been enormously valuable overall. People found my needle in their haystack and now we’re connected.

I think we’re living in a time where serendipitous findability is happening for more people, and chance meetings leading to powerful collaborations are happening more often. That’s why I’m optimistic about the future.

We all know the saying “Information is Power.” But that’s not true. Information isn’t power. Disproportionate access to information is power. Me knowing something about you that you’d prefer to keep secret…or me knowing which congressional staffer’s spouse works for which defense contractor…or me knowing that the FDA is about to approve a company’s drug application…me being able to Google a panelist while we’re at the same event, dig up their campaign contributions and share them with the audience...these are all examples of power.

But now we’re all getting a little more access to information. And we’re rewarding each other for making good connections with that information.

If you haven’t noticed, the geeks are inheriting the earth. That’s because they’re especially good at this. Josh Marshall, Nate Silver, Ari Melber—what do they have in common? They’re nerds. Well, maybe not Ari, he’s more of a stud than a nerd. But we feed these guys because they feed the network…and they make us all smarter, and collectively they’re helping us (and we’re helping them) beat back the bullshit.

When I decide to follow you or friend you, it’s because it’s helping make me smarter. Presumably, you feel the same way. We’re bolstering our serendipitous findability.

This event is a chance meeting.

You tweeting about this event, and someone stumbling across this idea, is a chance meeting.

That person offering me a $500K book deal to write about this idea, that would be a chance meeting too…[bad joke]

Remember the old radical 60s saying, “Only connect”?

Go connect.

[I am indebted to this post by Punya Mishra on "ambient findability" for helping inspire and focus these thoughts. And I have no idea who Punya Mishra is, but it was a chance meeting online that led me to him.]