Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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Exposing the Network

I was sitting outside at lunch today and I had a kind of crazy though pop into my head. Maybe there’s nothing new about the internet, it’s just more transparent. Now hear me out because I am working through this idea as you read it.

I think the most important effect of the internet thus far is that it’s exposed the network. For the first time everyone can understand what a network is and how it works. Now that we do, we’re beginning to take that knowledge and exploit it.

Collective intelligence isn’t really new is it? Desire lines are the unpaved paths that people wear down over time. In a way, does that represent collective intelligence? What about the “ask the audience” feature on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Yeah, it’s post internet, but the idea is not revolutionary. When people can contribute to the group anonymously, without worry of social repercussions, honest answers will emerge. When aggregated, those honest answers will represent collective intelligence. (Like I said, I’m working through this as I write, please tell me I’m wrong if I am.)

None of the communication aspects of the internet are really ‘new’, they’re mostly just faster. That’s not to say their cultural implications aren’t completely different, just that I don’t know how revolutionary they really are.

Rather, what’s revolutionary is that we now understand how things work. For instance, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how information gets to me. The first stop is generally a specialist, someone who knows and reads a lot about a particular topic. From there it gets passed down the ladder by individuals who are less and less specialized. I thought about this pattern first in blogs, but really its the same way a newspaper works. A number of writers contribute to the business section of a newspaper for instance. They all have areas of interest/specialization where they consume as much information as possible. It’s then the less specialized business editor who aggregates the writing of the individual authors, deciding what gets used in that day’s paper.

While I may have understood that process in some way, it never occurred to me in the way it has since the network was exposed by the internet. The other day Brian Dear wrote about how he’s now getting news before the outlets he used to rely on. He credits the collective intelligence of Digg and the gang with helping him beat them to the punch. In the comments, Andy Baio (of Waxy.org) writes: “The collective will almost always beat the individual, if the software is engineered in a way to surface that information well.”

I think that nails it, the collective beating the individual’s not a new thing, it’s engineering the software to make that information rise to the surface that’s tough. Of course the technology is a big part, but I think what’s more important is that we are beginning to understand how information flows through networks. That’s exciting stuff.

May 4, 2006