Monday, April 27, 2009

Dull Networks – How microblogging might turn the wisdom pyramid upside down

According to Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, the way humans process input from their environment can be classified into five categories:

  • Data represents a fact or statement of event without relation to other things.
    Ex: It is raining.
  • Information embodies the understanding of a relationship of some sort, possibly cause and effect.
    Ex: The temperature dropped 15 degrees and then it started raining.
  • Knowledge represents a pattern that connects and generally provides a high level of predictability as to what is described or what will happen next.
    Ex: If the humidity is very high and the temperature drops substantially the atmosphere is often unlikely to be able to hold the moisture so it rains.
  • Wisdom embodies more of an understanding of fundamental principles embodied within the knowledge and is essentially systemic.

Underlying this theory is the assumption that there is enough content in each of the related input streams to create relationships, identify patterns as well as identify and understand principles.

Recently, microblogging tools like Twitter emerged, which forcefully restrict users’ input to 140 characters, while still allowing for references to original authors’ tagging of keywords and providing URLs for content and location.

News channels like CNN, celebrities like Oprah and many companies are embarking into the microblogging adventure up to a point, where it seems that we often can read about people’s comments before they had the time to think about them.

Recently, a colleague attended his first event at which heavy underground twittering accompanied a formal presentation-style conference. He claimed, that the dynamics that this underground chatter – combined with occasional public outbursts of emerging self-proclaimed representatives of the twitter community – added a completely new and possibly valuable dimension to the knowledge exchange at these types of professional gatherings.

Well, I don’t know…

While I am sure there are some smart uses of microblogging tools, let me here inspect specifically Twitter’s use for knowledge transfer and knowledge augmentation:

Let’s look at it more closely: The knowledge and wisdom that a well-prepared speaker is communicating to the crowd based on a lifetime of experience in the form of simplified slides, multimedia materials, his or her voice, mimicry and gestures are absorbed by a most likely less experienced attendee whose mind is in parallel occupied by competing with others in the crowd commenting on the input in rapid sequence – 140 characters or less at a time.

Experiment: Turn on the TV, take a sheet of paper and capture what’s being said…. Done? Easy, isn’t it !

Now: Instead of capturing content, comment on what you hear while listening to the TV show. Still easy? What if I asked you now about details of the show? Most likely, you would draw a blank, since your mind was so occupied with creating an opinion and putting it to paper, that you had to stop following the show. We humans are just not good in parallel processing once we turn on our cognitive abilities and start thinking about the data we are absorbing.

In addition, since there is not enough space to put any contextual information and most twitterers don’t know each other personally, the communicated information is reduced down to bits and chunks of data flying through the twittersphere. Since the speaker might not have had his twitter address on the first slide, he might not even get referenced appropriately for the space, thus removing the last hope for the data being interpreted in context.

So we have just reduced the wisdom of an individual down to a multitude of data chunks being broadcasted through the networks. What makes matters worse is the way some people use microblogging tools like Twitter to seek information and build knowledge. Busy with keeping up with their legions of followees (people they are following) and trying to make sense out of the multitude of parallel discussion threads they are engaged in, many people don’t seem to have the time anymore to reflect while critically inspecting the origin and context in which the data was presented. However, this process is crucial to finding relationships between data samples in order to turn them into information.

In consequence, any data is elevated to the level of being trustworthy information, which then makes pattern recognition easy: Knowledge is what is read more than once from different sources. However, usually that should mean – for instance also in serious journalism practice – from independent sources. Unfortunately, microblogging sites are also social networking sites. The social networks propagate information multiple times and it is very hard to ensure independence. Surowieki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds emphasized that such wisdom requires independent knowledge contribution and aggregation rather than the unfiltered propagation of word of mouth data.

Don’t you think there are better ways to gain information and build knowledge?

And what’s wrong with listening to and trusting the wisdom of an expert?

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