Jul 21, 2008

Information: To free AND not to free

In a post a while ago, Adrian Ho makes the point that latecoming social media players may be penalised twice - through the double jeopardy of having lower influence and therefore ending up with lower loyalty and therefore lower influence and so on.

I can't agree more with that - though I'd also like to add, it's always better to be late than never.

But Adrian ends the post by noting - with great disappointment, I think - that the Internet is evolving the same kind of barriers to information flow that exist in the physical world, like popularity for instance.

The sharing of information - or the hiding of it - isn't unique to us humans. These twin motivations are embedded into the very fabric of nature and life. And it can be argued that without the continuing tension between them, life - and for us humans, enterprise - wouldn't be possible.

A stick insect is hiding the information that it's present where it is - to avoid ending up as a meal. The vibrant colours of flower and fruits signal information to unsuspecting birds and insects about where the food (and the hidden chore of transporting seeds) is. Nature abounds with myriad examples of this informational hide and seek game.

Alternating between enabling and impeding the flow of information is intrinsic to us too. Wherever we go we'll take this sport along - for it's at the folds where information is hidden and revealed that all of life and human endeavour take place.

Popularity is way of revealing information, and also of hiding it - the popular isn't always the good.

Talking about Wikipedia, Gene Koo (of Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society)  says, "Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power are not destroyed - Foucault taught us that this is impossible - but simply visible."

That stands true for all social media properties too. The levers of influence aren't destroyed - they are made visible. Which is why the best social media properties don't just use raw popularity but incorporate as much more information into them as possible. Google's Pagerank measures popularity but also makes transparent - and weeds out - links that manipulate popularity through various spoofing and spamdexing techniques.

But there we run into the dual nature of the universe - the dark side as it were. To keep real information freely and easily available, Google has to hide some information - the details of the factors influencing Pagerank. Else we would have rampant abuse of the Pagerank algorithm - and no free flow of information.

And likewise with every other social media property - the ones we will end up using will be the ones we trust implicitly. But none will be able to live up to the promise of keeping all information free all of the time.

It's not that a universe where all information is free all the time is not plausible. The laws of nature, I believe, make it not permissible.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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