Reliving Intellectual Flaws with A-List Influence

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Image via Flickr

“The ignorance, prejudices, and groupthink of an educated elite are still ignorance, prejudice and groupthink,” Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society goes into great detail about the flaws intellectuals bring to bear upon society with their influence. Some of the behavior of A-Listers matches those of intellectuals, historically.

First, let’s use Sowell’s definition of intellectual, an occupational category — writers, academics and the like — whose works begin and end with ideas. Clearly this description matches bloggers who make their living based off their writing, via consulting, speaking and other services.

You might not like what they have to say, but you can’t deny the influence of A-List bloggers.
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A Better Social Web Exists

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A better social web exists. It exists within each of us.

Today, this social web isn’t popular, instead it has fascinating small pools and eddies of action and meaningful dialogue. But this can be The Social Web, a place better than a popularity driven attention sphere focused on the best looking unicorn (Bieber or Kardashian, take your pick).

Our virtual worlds can become a place of vigorous discourse. Rather than dismissing social media‘s incredibly empowering capability in the hands of the Fifth Estate, the better social web seeks to increase online literacy for Everyone using these tools. The Middle East is just an example of what driven people can do with intelligent networking tools. So much more can be accomplished if we apply ourselves.

Rather than arguing over ideas and dismissing what we don’t like as uncivil (and thus engage in civility debates), politeness and manners will take precedence. Discourse can include disagreement without discoloring it with a personal sense of “respectful” civility. Posturing and maintaining top rankings via attention metrics will mean less in the Real Social Web.

The Real Social Web is a meritocracy where great acts drive the ebb and flow of the tides. This social web of the future works for society instead of trying to fleece it. Accomplishing acts that matter will take precedence: Social change occurs, companies working hand in hand with nonprofits to achieve great acts, and companies serving their customers with better products in services, embracing them as part of an extended social enterprise.

Popcorn dreams? Maybe. But changemakers seize on ideas and make them happen. Dreams can be achieved.

What do we have to do to get there? We can’t turn a blind eye to it. As communicators we are as responsible for the current PR 2.0 driven popularity mess as Silicon Valley is. We have to look at ourselves, and see how we have created this and why? It is incumbent on us to mindfully evolve within to create this new social web of the future.

We must speak up, one by one. And we need to stop rewarding the old PR systems and the people who have lead us into the popularity trap. It’s time to start asking why these people are popular, and what they did “Before Social Media.” What qualifies them to lead the communications industry besides personal attention?

Together we can collectively build a better online community. This means educating ourselves and our customers on what real business outcomes are. It means focusing on the basics, instead of the hyperbole of the latest shiny object (Android Honeycomb app, anyone?). It means much stronger practices of metric based communications across the industry. Instead of focusing on the Klouts of the world we need to develop more myImpacts.

It means talking to our children and reinvesting our values back into great deeds and hard work instead of quick fixes and popularity. Digital literacy and understanding how information is served must become a critical function of our education system. Sustainable happiness will be the outcome as opposed to short term vicarious pleasure (yum, Pop Chips).

The Real Social Web of the future is a place where anyone can use these tools to achieve great things. Imagine writing literature of the digital future, making a child laugh, creating a virtual place where scientists from around the world work to conquer AIDs, building the best company in a sector, or achieving a more peaceful, democratic country.

Yeah, it’s a dream. But inside this heart a better social web exists. Some people live this dream already. It’s worth fighting for.

How Social Semantic Search Defines People

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(Cartoon by David G. Klein from the New York Times)

Search is the underpinning of the Internet today, from the 1 billion traditional searches everyday on Google to providing references about a person on Twitter and delivering their stream feed on Facebook. Search has moved from simple page rank to an increasingly complex algorithm that weight’s social and semantic data points to deliver the outcomes most likely to please you. Personalization of search continues to evolve, but in turn it defines people and their choices.

Search — the technology itself — doesn’t bear responsibility for this. People do. People who use the Internet and its many free tools without understanding how the information is provided to them. They blindly accept search results or the search-based content feed without considering the source.

Consider the DecorMyEyes fiasco broken by the New York Times. Owner Vitaly Borker explained how he used intentionally created negative complaints about DecorMyEyes to game search results and place himself as a top ranked eyeglasses vendor. To Google’s credit, they promptly changed their algorithm to include more semantic weight (all negative or all positive disqualifying you), and the Department of Justice followed up with charges.

Social networks and applications also use search to source preferred content. Facebook’s activity feed is designed to source the most “interesting” content to people in your friends network are using the Open Graph API and likes. Search on Facebook is completely driven by the Open Graph (Like) protocol.

Of course, hashtags have demonstrated the power of search on Twitter. Twitter search was originally based on the acquired Summize search technology, and has been used to reference mentions and trends, too. Now Twitter (and other services) suggests people like you using semantic data.

The Danger of Homogeneous Definition

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The danger in all of this personalized search — particularly when it’s largely based on peer interests — is creating a society of homogeneous sycophants that blindly accept the content sourced to them, either via search or feeds. Lest we think that people actually think through the click, consider organic click through rates on Google (as pictured above by SEO’s Neil Walker). Clicking through on the first few search terms is and has been the norm.

The addition of local semantic data to search only further complicates concepts of popularity. Algorithms tell people which burger joints, music venues, theaters, etc. are most likely to meet their interests.

When popularity is defined by an algorithm and served to people, homogeneos or mob thinking becomes the norm. This thinking feeds on the popular. Society is not currently trained to question the information presented to it. Thus algorithms — designed to create the output that will generate the most click throughs — become a critical determinant in defining people’s lives, and society as a whole.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Semantic information can weigh in when a system is gamed, and social search can provide the latest information based on people’s actual use and check-ins. However, idea markets are increasingly influenced by the popular, and not necessarily in a good way. Algorithms can keep bad ideas popular for longer periods of time.

It all points back to the need for society to teach better information skills. In an information economy, the ability to question and discern quality data presented via a plethora of media is an essential quality for democracy and individualism. It’s important to look deeper at online search, whether that’s because a search provided direct information or because an algorithm sourced a friend or influencer touting an idea or product. Quoting Doug Haslam, “Think for yourself. …you needn’t be part of some pack that can’t brook disagreement with your heroes.”

An educated Fifth Estate creates an evolutionary society, a mindless one creates results like Kim Kardashian as the number one search term on Bing for 2010. While many people find Kardashian attractive, should social semantic search tell every person — man and woman alike — what the icon of attractive is? Parents across America may object.

What do you think about how search and algorithms are defining our society?