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Networked Community, or Hyperconnected Mob? What to do about Internet Attention Deficit Disorder

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 6 2008

Are we going down the tubes, or can we use the tubes to save us from ourselves? When I'm not distracted by the latest news, that's what I'm trying to think about these days. Here are some unfinished thoughts on the topic...

Over Labor Day weekend, I spent some time with a very smart group of engineers, quantitative analysts, and e-activists, all of whom were wrestling with the question of whether the internet could contribute to solving the climate crisis, and while everyone had something to say, we didn't do a very good job of thinking together. As we all sat with our laptops open, half-listening while we tapped away on our email or Twitter-feeds, I wondered, have we all caught Internet attention-deficit-disorder?

Now we're all watching Wall Street's continuing meltdown, and thousands, maybe even millions, of us are trying to answer that age-old political question, "What is to be done?" But the spike in online discussion of the economic crisis--Ari Melber noted in The Nation a huge surge in references to the bailout in the blogosphere over the last week--hasn't exactly resulted in clarity about what to do.

As Nancy Scola posted a few days ago, uber-geek Robert Scoble is throwing his hands up in the air at all the armchair punditizing going on, and declaring his intention to turn his attention back toward the very elites who supposedly had their hands on the wheel steering us into this mess! (Not David Brooks, Scoble!)

The problem with information overload, and interaction overload, may well be hardwired in our brains--the so-called "Dunbar number" of 150 being the rough limit of how many people we can actually have a real relationship with. But we can definitely do a better job building and sharing better filters for dealing with these overloads. Now, more than ever, we need to take this problem of collaborative cogitation seriously--otherwise all the web is doing is making it easier for more people to talk to each other, but not necessarily to listen to each other.

As Mark Pesce, who keynoted PdF this year with a provocative talk on the new age of hyper-mimesis and hyper-connection, says in a fresh post on his blog:

Four years ago, when I began my research into sharing and social networks, I asked a basic question: Will we find some way to transcend this biological limit, break free of the tyranny of cranial capacity, grow beyond the limits of Dunbar’s Number?

After all, we have the technology. We can hyperconnect in so many ways, through so many media, across the entire range of sensory modalities, it is as if the material world, which we have fashioned into our own image, wants nothing more than to boost our capacity for relationship.

And now we have two forces in opposition, both originating in the mind. Our old mind hews closely to the community and Dunbar’s Number. Our new mind seeks the power of the mob, and the amplification of numbers beyond imagination. This is the central paradox of the early 21st century, this is the rift which will never close. On one side we are civil, and civilized. On the other we are awesome, terrible, and terrifying. And everything we’ve done in the last fifteen years has simply pushed us closer to the abyss of the awesome.

We can not reasonably put down these new weapons of communication, even as they grind communities beneath them like so many old and brittle bones. We can not turn the dial of history backward. We are what we are, and already we have a good sense of what we are becoming. It may not be pretty – it may not even feel human – but this is things as they are.

Mark argues that we are caught between our need to belong to real functioning human-scale communities and our tendency to be sucked into larger, mob-like behavior, and offers a way out of this nightmare: make our communities smarter by harnessing the power of the mob, i.e. crowdsourcing.

...every time we gather together in our hyperconnected mobs to crowdsource some particular task, we become better informed, we become more powerful. Which means it becomes more likely that the hyperconnected mob will come together again around some other task suited to crowdsourcing, and will become even more powerful. That system of positive feedbacks – which we are already quite in the midst of – is fashioning a new polity, a rewritten social contract, which is making the institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries – that is, the industrial era – seem as antiquated and quaint as the feudal systems which they replaced.

It is not that these institutions are dying, but rather, they now face worthy competitors. Democracy, as an example, works well in communities, but can fail epically when it scales to mobs. Crowdsourced knowledge requires a mob, but that knowledge, once it has been collected, can be shared within a community, to hyperempower that community. This tug-of-war between communities and crowds is setting all of our institutions, old and new, vibrating like taught strings.

I think that Mark is right that we're constantly discovering and playing with new patterns for collaboration. Everything from the rise of the netroots to the rise of Twitter #hashtag campaigns are examples of new forms of self-organization and collaboration. But here's the thing: we're in danger of rushing so fast into the future of networked communication, playing with our new tools and inventing new ones, that we'll never get really get the crowdsourcing-->community effects refined that we need. ("Dean done right," some people used to call it.)

Anthony Citrano, one of the founders of PopTech, expresses part of what I'm thinking in this post, which he titled "Breadlines and Battlecries." Addressing A-list bloggers like Scoble, he wrote:

I’m not asking you to give up your gadgets nor to stop blogging about blogging. Social media is unquestionably transforming our global culture and our politics. But let’s devote less energy to the tools themselves and more to the fuller realization of their potential. I suggest a little less time navel-gazing and a little more time using your voices, tools and networks to catalyze broad, deep, honest conversations about public policy. And it will be contagious: in doing so, you will set an example for the millions who will see and hear you.

Citrano's point is that we need more focus and less chatter; more signal, less noise; more attention to serious civic issues, less on ephemera. I think we also need better tools and practices in how we use the social web to make sense of our times, and it's time for political technologists to make more of an effort to congeal that conversation. Do you agree? If so, will you join me in such a conversation, if, for example, we were to pick a time for a monthly conference call for everyone who might be interested in joining in?