In her terrific and inspiring new book, Share This: How You Will Change the World With Social Networking (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), media technologist Deanna Zandt describes and applauds the new information environment of widespread, prolific sharing of information.
When we read a new story online, there’s usually a tool on the page that encourages us to “e-mail this to a friend” or post it to one of dozens of social networks. When we watch a funny video, we embed it on our own site or link to it so that others will watch. When something happens that makes us go “Wow!” we want to tell everyone we know. (Zandt, p. 7)
It’s easy enough to read this, and say, “Sure, it’s fun to share stuff, but so what? The world is a serious place with lots of problems. Why should we waste our time and effort on fun and games like this?”
Ms. Zandt asserts that, though many of the shared items may seem frivolous in isolation, the collective stakes are really quite a bit higher.
When we share our own and others’ experiences and opinions, we can begin to overhaul traditional power dynamics and relationships. We start to determine for ourselves what’s relevant and important, and subvert the institutions that seek to keep the status quo. (Zandt, p. 56)
Woah! This is a big claim. Can it be true? How can uncoordinated sharing of miscellaneous information “overhaul traditional power dynamics”? Isn’t it really all just a bunch of random bits and pieces of information, spread helter-skelter among friends and strangers alike? This can’t possibly add up to anything coherent or meaningful.
Or can it?
In Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (Holt, 2007), David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society takes a more epistemological view of these scattered pieces of information and connection:
… For the first time, we have an infrastructure that allows us to hop over and around established categorizations with ease. We can make connections and relationships at a pace never before imagined. We are doing so together. We are doing so in public. Every hyperlink and every playlist enriches our shared miscellany, creating potential connections that we can’t often anticipate. Each connection tells us something about the connected things, about the person who made the connection, about the culture in which a person could make such a connection, about the sorts of people who find that connection worth noticing. This is how meaning grows. Whether we’re doing it on purpose or simply by leaving tracks behind us, the public construction of meaning is the most important project of the next 100 years. (Weinberger, p. 221-2, emphasis added)
In other words, sharing and connecting is not just a self-serving exercise. It’s actually creating meaning — profoundly and long-lasting. It’s changing how we collectively view the world and our relationship to it, and to one another. And in today’s world of ecological destruction and other ills, a shift in our collective world view is critical.
So, for those of us who want to join this “most important project”, how do we decide what information to share? What are the most important connections for us to make? Ms. Zandt provides some guidance:
… it’s not enough to put random things out there. What you share in social networks needs to come from a real place in your personality: your own experiences, opinions, hopes, and fears. It’s those authentic tidbits that are going to create connections of empathy and trust with other people… (Zandt, p. 50)
Put another way, the formula for effectively contributing to this critical effort to shift our collective world view is …. to be yourself. Be your authentic self. Trust your instincts. Share what you think is important. In a continual process of self-discovery, use your own voice (in any medium). Be you. See me. Become we.
And will it make a difference? Mr. Weinberger thinks so.
Every phenomenon of meaning will emerge from the miscellaneous, from limericks to marketplaces, from new products to poetry to peace.” (Weinberger, p. 172)
I think so, too.