At least once a week I see protesters against universal health care holding huge posters warning of Obama’s socialist agenda (I work right by the White House). Conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck insult Obama by calling him a socialist…and we’re supposed to cringe in terror.
With this in mind, I ask:
How do you think our fair and balanced friends at Fox News would react to Chris Anderson’s view of the socialist state of our collective online futures?
First, let’s be clear. Socialism does not mean fascism or Stalinism. I’m not talking about big-brother State murdering journalists and political dissidents. And while there are many different political systems that adopt their policies as “socialist,” what I mean here is the strict definition of the principle.Wikipedia says it well: “a society characterized by equal access to resources for all individuals with a method of compensation based on the amount of labor expended.”
Meanwhile, economist Vilfredo Pareto outlined wealth distribution at the turn of the 18th century with a ratio. He found that about 20 percent of the population owned 80 percent of the wealth. Since Pareto’s time, this ratio has been argued for all levels of modern economic systems. Merchants find that 20 percent of their products account for 80 percent of their sales.
If Anderson is to be believed, that model is dead with the Web.
That’s where socialism comes in. With the even-handed nature of the Web, you and I can decide to Digg an article or not, and that’s what rises to the top.
Everyone has an equal opportunity to define the agenda for the day.
It’s a philosophical difference. When all information is treated equally, society is collectively held responsible for sifting through the nonsense. Anderson reflects, “Fundamentally, a society that asks questions and has the power to answer them is a healthier society than one that simply accepts what it’s told from a narrow range of experts and institutions.” When all information is treated fairly equally, we are required to think for ourselves. We are no longer media consumers, but media critics, analysts, and producers.
Anderson calls this, “The Paradise of Choice.” With the nearly unlimited boundaries of online commerce, choices become close to infinite. And the alternative to this paradise? Having those on top of society (the editors, business owners, political forces) choose for us. I doubt even the staunchest anti-socialism advocates would surrender their freedom of choice.
But the variety isn’t enough. In order to make smart choices, we also need more information about the choices.
And that’s where the power of filters comes in.
Search engines started the filtering process. Google analyzes keywords to bring meaning to a Web page. So that when you search for a term, you are likely to find a page all about that term.
Now social networks pick up where searches left off and filter topics and sources through your own network’s recommendations. Facebook’s new “Live Feed” even filters information using information on the friends with whom you interact the most.
Real-time-web promises to be even smarter–using information about our past actions to define what we are truly looking for in a search and recommending pages we never would have found otherwise.
But as online information grows and is filtered over time, one overriding quality stands out: We are quickly breaking off into many niche markets.
Could this be an element of human nature? To make ourselves feel more significant, we constantly form into small ponds? Anderson argues it is something deeper than that. In clusters, we are more creative and productive. Cities are energetic hubs. In these niches, society seems to group itself naturally.
Perhaps this natural filtering process is our natural way to seek and define our individual identity…not a very socialistic tendency. Whatever the answer, I find strength in the thought that we are moving in the direction of greater collective autonomy and power. Editors can overlook a big story, but millions of users on the Web are less likely to be so neglectful. One must hope that the “collective wisdom” we hear so much about is truly wise and not just a lot of fluff.