The Wisdom of the Social Media Crowd

In his blog post A Story Culture, Michael Lopp, author of Managing Humans (check out the book's great promotional website), used the intriguing phrase “connective information tissue” to describe the value of tweets (status messages sent via Twitter).


Information Hierarchy

Challenged by his editor to better understand what information is, Lopp starts with the definition of the Information Hierarchy provided by Ray R. Larson at Berkeley:

  • Data – The raw material of information
  • Information – Data organized and presented by someone
  • Knowledge – Information read, heard or seen and understood
  • Wisdom – Distilled and integrated knowledge and understanding

Lopp then examines how information ascends this hierarchy using the perennial vehicle designed for its transmission—the story.


Shattered bits of narrative

“The traditional narrative,” explains Lopp, “has been shattered into bits of well-indexed information.  Google wasn’t the first indexing tool, but it’s certainly the best.  Still, Google is powerfully dumb.  Yes, I can find whatever piece of information I’m looking for, but what’s more interesting are all the related pieces of information.  How do you query for knowledge via Google?  How about wisdom?”

Constructing (or reconstructing) a meaningful narrative from shattered bits of information requires a human storyteller.

“There’s no replacing,” explains Lopp, “a human being combing through seemingly disparate pieces of information to evaluate, interpret, and combine it into something unexpected; into a new work.  Into a story.”


What tale can tattered tweets truly tell?

With their 140 character limit, tweets are certainly capable of being classified as shattered bits of narrative.

However, according to Lopp, “the point of Twitter isn’t knowledge or understanding, it’s merely connective information tissue.  It’s small bits of information carefully selected by those you’ve chosen to follow and its value isn’t in what they send, it’s how it fits into the story in your head.  There are great stories to be found on Twitter, but you have to do the work.”

Case in point—it was the tweet sent by Rob Paller that lead me to the blog post I am trying to write a great story about now.

Of course, as Lopp acknowledges, Twitter is not an isolated example. 

Information continues to be shared in smaller and smaller bits in accordance with our shorter and shorter attention spans. 

“Paradoxically, it’s never been easier to share or meaningfully interact with more people with less physical, in-person effort,” explains Lopp.  “Your ability to compose and convey information as well as express yourself through your fingertips is a skill that is only going to increase—and increase in value—as people become more comfortable with their place in communities that span the planet, and as the tools to connect them become more commonplace.” 

As social media's conversation medium continues to supplant traditional media's broadcast medium, it is enabling a world that fulfills James Joyce's vision in Finnegans Wake: “my consumers, are they not my producers?”

In other words, we are both consuming and producing the connective information tissue that forms our collective intelligence.


We are all storytellers

Even before the evolution of written language, storytelling played an integral role in every human culture.  Listening to stories and retelling them to others continues to be the predominant means of expressing our emotions and ideas.  Writing (and reading) greatly improves our ability to communicate, educate, record our history, and thereby pass on our information, knowledge, and wisdom to future generations.

We are now living in an amazing age where the very air we breath is literally teeming with information.  Digital data streams are continuously transmitted across the globe at near instantaneous speeds.  We need storytellers now more than ever. 

However, storytelling is neither an esoteric skill possessed by only a select few, nor is it the sole providence of writers. 

“The construction of a story,” explains Lopp, “has very little to do with writing.  It has to do with the semi-magical process of you taking disparate pieces of information, combining them into something new, which includes your experience and understanding, and then giving them to someone else.”

In a story culture, we are all storytellers. 

Storytelling may not be as simple (or as fun) as playing a game of Mad Libs.  However, it is important to realize that the very act of thinking is a form of storytelling.  The thought process is your brain collecting the shattered bits of information whirling around in your head and weaving them together into a narrative that, at least at first, might not make sense—even to you. 

The thought process isn't always simple and it isn't always fast.  Especially when all those voices in your head talk at once. 

My own thinking often feels like I am herding cats or—thanks to the “semi-magical process” makes me describe it—as if I am “full of broken thoughts I could not repair” (from the song Hurt originally by Nine Inch Nails and covered by Johnny Cash).

Eventually, you assemble a tale actually worth telling.  But even though you may be certain that the force is strong with this one, your tale is not a story yet. 

“Just like information isn’t knowledge until it’s understood,” as Lopp thoughtfully explains, “your tale isn’t a story until you give it to someone else—until they have a chance to see what they think about your inspiration.”


The Wisdom of the Social Media Crowd

One of my favorite books is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, which was originally published in 2004 (i.e., 2 B.T.E., two years “Before the Twitter Era”) before the real rise to prominence of social media.  Aspects of social media (such as blogging) were already prevalent at the time, but most of today's leading social networking tools were still in their nascent phase.

However, I believe many of Surowiecki's insights are very applicable to social media.  Take for example the four conditions that characterize wise crowds:

  1. Diversity of opinion
  2. Independence
  3. Decentralization
  4. Aggregation

Returning to Lopp's concept, it is social media's small bits of connective information tissue, gathered from diverse digital sources, acting as independent agents, lacking any centralized information authority, aggregated with your own knowledge, which you then construct into a story and share with others—that is The Wisdom of the Social Media Crowd.


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