Speed of a Meme: Is all there is but twitter and Facebook?

The Future of Real-time Publishing
Moderator : Brian Stelter (@brianstelter)

I recently spent some time at the Social Media Week event on the Future of Real Time Publishing – where we were watching the tweets coming from Storyful’s Egypt feed. The four characters on stage were going over some of the challenges for the real time publishing issue – which was extremely entertaining. But then the moderator asked a very simply question: “Is all there is but twitter and Facebook? Is there nothing more?”

The panel got into a discussion about the longevity of the services, the many masses of people on the services (read: audience) and the systems themselves. The next question was whether or not the Tunisia uprising would have happened if not for twitter and/or Facebook. One of the panelists suggested that it would have, but much slower and much more bloodier.

As I listened, I wondered if there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what social networks and the connection between Facebook + twitter + mobile phones means to the political process – both in political campaigning AND governing.

We Live in Lower Friction Times

About three years ago, at a BarCampNYC event, I spoke on the topic of “The Speed of Memes” – the idea being that memes are carried across the knowledge-sphere a lot faster than they ever did before. And with each new improvement on communication technology – we have seen changes in how events unfold in our lives.

With the advent of the telegraph, election results were transmitted faster than before. Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union Great Hall became news (along with the Gettysburg Address) through the speed that had heretofore not been possible without the technology.

With the advent of radio, the nation could not have gathered around and mobilized in the same fashion without those fireside chats from FDR and the news and information that was communicated from oceans away to mobilize our nation to fight against the Nazis.

With the advent of television, the Vietnam War would have been just another war “over there”, but with vivid pictures of action splashing across the screens of millions of Americans, a movement rose up to fight against the war. The anti-war movement was spurred on over time, but much faster that the pro-war movement of 1939-41 since the speed of the memes were not able to travel as quickly.

With the advent of the Internet and particularly blogs, information began to get disseminated much faster – and with the help of google, people could easily find information out and connect the news sources to the stories they were creating and become their own blog network (see the old blogrolls for confirmation of where the web existed). Google guaranteed speedy search, and blogging guaranteed quicker publishing that waiting for editors and machines to churn out the papers. The sudden demise of Dell’s influence with a single post by Jeff Jarvis became the inflection point for how powerful a meme could be.

Informational Friction Coefficient going to zero?

And now twitter and Facebook. But we should actually connect it to mobile phones and high speed/high throughput networks. With the advent of these technologies, and then the standardization of memes into 140 characters with shortened links or the standard structure of a news story on Facebook and the algorithm that determines who sees what on their Newsfeed – we are seeing an acceleration of information dissemination. A speed of memes that is much greater than people are used to.

Less than a month ago – if you had asked any Joe/Jane on the street, you would not have heard a harsh word about Mubarak. Even on January 25th, when the first 30K marchers rose up, we still would have not paid much attention. But as the crowds swelled, and the community rose up – it became more and more obvious that the fury that had been simmering and the validation that came with the first protesters showed up in the inboxes, Facebook newsfeeds or SMS messages on their mobile phones emboldened an entire community to rise up and take back their country.

The speed of the meme is what politicians, political operatives and governments are awakening to. No more are the Facebookers simply an entertainment. No more are the tweeters simply someone to deride because they talk about things that you are not interested in. The networks have become more enmeshed and the speed of information transmission has increased to what the telco world would call “the last mile”. Now, the last mile is in the hands of regular people – on their mobile phones, on their laptops connected either via wifi or by high speed mobile network connection. And yes, countries can “pull the plug” as Egypt did – but work-arounds are always possible.

The friction that used to give people and companies time to respond/react has disappeared. And this is something we as a culture have to begin to appreciate. Funniest thing I read the other day was Zoe Pollack commenting on another post on the professionalism of the web and how it is not the source of “shock” anymore.

But as long as the networks exist – and they may be for a little while longer – these issues will continue to grow. The utility of twitter with its API and ubiquity on all mobile phone platforms (both smart phones and normal) and the thrall of Facebook to our information-hungry communities combined with the social network graph and the APIs that allow for even further fine-tuning of our interests when we need them – this is a challenge that governments both here and abroad are going to need to address.

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