Oh, we launched this and we tried it, and then the users came along and did all these weird things.
Social software seems to be a recurring theme for me here lately. I don’t suppose that should particularly come as a surprise considering I’m taking a course focusing on Web 2.0 apps, but the interesting thing is that it’s, for example, only one of three places I can think of off the top of my head that I’ve seen content pertinent to the topic in, oh, just the last day or so – without even looking for it specifically.
For class we read Steven Johnson’s article for Time Magazine, “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live”. The article talks about how Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Evan Williams made this new tool with really simple functionality, and then the users came along with their own ideas about what that tool could be leveraged for:
“But the key development with Twitter is how we’ve jury-rigged the system to do things that its creators never dreamed of.
In short, the most fascinating thing about Twitter is not what it’s doing to us. It’s what we’re doing to it. ”
This general idea rings a big bell for me, because it mirrors a pattern that’s been observed repeatedly, when people are given a new tool – they come up with their own ideas about how they’re going to use it, and the developers can never fully anticipate the ways in which the tool is going to be used. Going back to Clay Shirky, who I will probably refer to a bunch on this blog given enough time… Shirky had this to say on the topic, in his excellent keynote speech “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy”, years before Twitter even existed:
“Groups are a run-time effect. You cannot specify in advance what the group will do, and so you can’t substantiate in software everything you expect to have happen. Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up.”
For Twitter, rather than its enduring value coming from the fact that you can quickly and easily reach your personal social network to tell them about some minutiae in your life, Johnson posits that its real strength lies in that we’ve started using it as the medium for a sort of insta-dialogue about What’s Happening Right Now, and talks about its use at a private conference about education, and how before too long participants from outside the conference started getting engaged, and the topic itself took on a life of its own that extended for weeks beyond the conference itself.
Right Now is really a fascinating topic when it comes to the Web, and it’s the subject of no small amount of scrutiny – quite plainly because that’s where all the money is. Advertisers want to be positioned for the next big thing, and understanding the way the medium works puts you way ahead of the game.
An article I read on ArsTechnica earlier today that gets deeply into the subject, really blew me away – see “Tag Networks on Social Sites May Predict Next Internet Fad”. It talks about the findings of a bunch of European researchers who have been analyzing the way tagging indicates semantic, topical links that aren’t really observable on an individual level, but that start to emerge in a big way once you start looking at really large numbers of people.
“(Their) findings suggest that there are associations among concepts and users at work on the Internet that have yet to be taken advantage of by websites. It sounds quite a bit like algorithms that big-box stores often use to place merchandise—for example, if a store aggregates receipts and finds that people who buy fancy kitchen utensils often buy bananas as well, the store will place a few bananas by the kitchen utensils. The sight of bananas next to kitchen utensils is nonsensical to the average consumer, but you shouldn’t doubt for a second that there is an underlying logic to the seemingly random juxtaposition.”
In short, it turns out that when you look at enough people tagging content with something like delicious, or bibSonomy, or – in our class – Diigo, patterns emerge. It becomes evident that people who are tagging content in one particular subject area are likely to do so in other specific areas as well.
“In addition to previously unseen connections among tags, the application of Heaps’ law points to the possibility of a sort of precognition on the part of a social bookmarking site. By recognizing the kind of semantic connections described here, as well as the inevitability of shifting interests, it would be possible for a website to anticipate the swell of popularity of a particular topic before it happens and position themselves accordingly. If the bookmarking site were manipulative, it would be possible to put down or redirect the impending topic revolutions.”
So there you go. Our seemingly innocuous tagging for a class assignment may be contributing in a sense to defining what the Next Big Thing is. Pretty neat, huh?