Small Pieces Loosely Joined
While the popping of the big tech investment bubble jaded many people on the possibilities of the Internet, it certainly had no such effect on David Weinberger. According to Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus, 2001), "the Web is, if anything, underhyped."
Inspired by a quote from a veteran of a firm now free-falling out of the Fortune 500 ("The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery"), Weinberger and his co-conspirators set out a theory of the Internet and its relationship to economic life in the first few of the 95 theses of their manifesto (http://www.cluetrain.com):
- Markets are conversations.
- Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
- The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
- In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
- These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
- As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
- People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
Weinberger takes these theses further in his new book, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Perseus, 2002). He believes that human beings are necessarily social. He writes,
Our families, our communities, and our culture make us what we are. And once we are what we are, we are still unthinkable outside the groups with whom we live; maroon us on a desert isle, and we'll form an association with a volleyball if we have to. So if a new infrastructure comes along that allows us to connect with everyone else on the planet and to invent new types of connections, this is big news indeed. (smallpieces.com)
According to Fast Company magazine, these are Weinberger's five essential theses:
- On the Web, all fame is local.
- The Web is all about groups.
- Knowledge on the Web is a social activity.
- The Web returns us to ourselves.
- The Web will have its deepest effect as an idea.
In a highly differentiated society, like ours in North America, one should probably pay close attention to the role of highly tenuous interpersonal relationships in knitting together the social fabric. Weinberger gives a good example of such a relationship:
There is a person with whom I've been corresponding over the past 10 years on a very intermittent basis—perhaps once every two years—and then only when we have something interesting to talk about. If I come across a link, and I'm reminded of her, then I'll forward the URL. I don't know how to refer to this person. She's neither an acquaintance nor a friend. But we have a relationship that's based on a shared interest—and I expect to have those kinds of relationships for the rest of my life.
Perhaps the prime example at the moment of Weinberger's small-pieces-loosely-joined is the phenomenon of weblogging, or blogging. According to Rebecca Mead, in a New Yorker article,
a blog consists primarily of links to other Web sites and commentary about those links. Having a blog is rather like publishing your own, on-line version of Reader's Digest, with daily updates: you troll the Internet, and, when you find an article or a Web site that grabs you, you link to it—or, in weblog parlance, you "blog" it. Then other people who have blogs—they are known as bloggers—read your blog, and if they like it they blog your blog on their own blog.
A&LD went online in September, 1998, in an elegant text—only format that mimics the broadsheets they read in 18th-century London coffee houses. The impression it's made in 40 months or so demonstrates that there are ways the Web can serve the intellectual world better than print. One way is speed. The magazine's motto, Veritas odit moras, from Seneca, means "Truth hates delay." Articles that used to take weeks to travel across continents now make the journey in a twinkling. A newspaper writer produces a new idea in London on Tuesday, the editors at Christchurch spot it Wednesday online, and that night I'm reading it in Toronto.
The Web has decentralized the control of ideas, as A&LD proves. A few years ago the exchange of opinions and theories had to be managed by people living in great metropolitan centres, the intellectual world's version of imperialism. But with the Web it can be done anywhere. The idea of Christchurch, New Zealand, as the thought-control centre of the universe has both charm and originality.
For a treasure trove of information on blogs, see http://www.well.com/user/jd/weblog/roundup.html.
Whatever the fate of tech stocks in the financial markets over the next few years, there is little doubt that we have not seen the end of the changes to social or economic life that the Internet will work. And for glimpses of those changes, the world of blogs is a good place to look.