I recently attended a “Conversation with Stephen Johnson” where there was a group discussion around his latest book Where Good Ideas Come From (click here for a fantastic video which illustrates some of the main points from the book). During the discussion of his studies of innovators, Stephen said that innovators maintain strong and weak ties across diverse disciplines. This then led to the question of, does the changing methods on communication including the web lead people to live in an echo chamber or allow them to become hyper-connected. The answer of course is that the web and social media networks are all tools and it is dependent upon the users as to whether they seek out and embrace diversity and serendipity or instead reinforce their own beliefs and reject new and different ideas.
The argument for diversity of ideas is summarized well in the argument for open innovation that while your organization may have smart people, there are a lot more smart people outside your organization than inside. So when you turn to what we read on the internet and who we connect with on social media, are you getting a diverse set of ideas or are you only connecting to friends and coworkers? When I first joined Twitter in 2008, I was forced to interact with new people since few people who I knew were using it. This has changed a lot in the last two years, not only have many people who I know joined Twitter, but I’ve had the opportunity to meet many that I follow at conferences and industry events. I try to go out of my way to look for new perspectives and that means that I need to be careful that interactions with my closer connections don’t block out the opportunity to learn and find new ideas from others.
One of the things that social media tools are best for is maintaining loose ties. According to the Dunbar number, people can only maintain an active social relationship with around 150 people. When people change jobs or move from an area, closer acquaintances would take more attention than those far away. With the introduction of sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, connections can be maintained and networks can become more diverse spanning the various geographies and careers that a person travels over a lifetime. While Facebook is the most ubiquitous of social media sites, I wonder if it is also the most insular. Facebook is a great place to share photos or something funny or interesting, but from my experience it’s not a place for deep discussions or critical debate.
While the networks of Facebook, Twitter and Google dominate the space, being an early adopter of a new platform can give you the opportunity to explore. Two new recent additions to the landscape are OneTrueFan and Quora. Louis Gray has written about OneTrueFan, a tool that tracks and shares the websites that you visit. Ten years ago, “searching the web” meant more about poking around and finding new interesting places rather than simply searching with Google or Bing. Today there is not only the use of search, but also the growing usage of applications through mobile devices which tend to limit what places on the web you might go to. Quora is a site for asking and answering questions which has been attracting a lot of attention and rapidly growing an audience. My biggest complaints on sites such as LinkedIn and others that have large question sections is that it is difficult to find things or interest or meaningful answers (lots of echo chamber or marketing noise). Quora has the latest tagging and social tools to allow for following, voting and sharing. I was beginning to wonder if size of the large networking sites were going to limit small ventures. It’s a given that some of the features of these sites will be imitated by the large players and the early adopter crowd tend to move on to the next thing after a few months.
Overall there is huge population on the social sites now, so while it is easier to find those with a common interest, it is also easier to end up with a network that shares your point of view. It’s said that one of the best ways to solve a problem is to explain it to someone who has no idea how your industry works. I hope that sites such as Quora will help facilitate a place for robust debate and ideas exploration. I agree with Stephen Johnson‘s belief is that the hyper-connectivity forces of the web outweigh the echo chamber effect. May 2011 bring you fresh opportunities and your ideas to fruition.