July 8, 2012


            Recently I participated in a program entitled, “Ubuntu and Social Media.” It was my introduction to Ubuntu, an African philosophy about community and people’s relationship with each other.
            The last two Mobile Musings have heralded the confluence of pocket processing power and wireless IP networks to stand the traditional role of a network on its head. By empowering the individual to take over activities once performed by the centralized network, individual hubs have replaced network hubs as the controlling force. It is the transformation of each of us from a “client” at the end of a delivery path, to a “server” at the center of our own unique network.
            What has become known as “social media” is one result of these new individual hubs. Twitter’s 400 million daily tweets originate at an individual hub for delivery to the tweeter’s own network. Similarly, pictures taken on a cameraphone propagate via Facebook to a self-assembled network. Whether it is tweeting about what I had for breakfast, or publishing personal photos, the new network has empowered a new era of “it’s all about me.”
            This raises the whole question about community – Ubuntu – in the new networked world. If individual network hubs encourage “it’s all about me,” what becomes of the collective community necessary for the functioning of society?
            The Founding Fathers worried whether a nation that was so spread out and sparsely connected could survive. News of the founding of the republic, for instance, took 22½ days to make its way to Charleston, S.C. This lack of interconnection meant that local behavior and traditions flourished, including what Southerners called their “peculiar institution” of slavery. Four score years later, as the railroad and telegraph networks began to knit the fabric of the nation more tightly, the practices of such isolated independence became a national discussion, followed by a national disaster.
            The question we face today is whether the new network’s ability to let individuals define their interactions around themselves will return us to a similar kind of isolation, albeit electronic rather than physical. I got quite a rise out of the audience and fellow program participants at the Ubuntu program when I announced, “Tweeting is not participating.” Sending a tweet is not a community-building action, it is a self-centered “here’s what I’m interested in” statement enabled by the new network.
            In his new book Confront and Conceal, David Sanger tells how the use of Twitter during the Arab Spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square failed to translate into electoral victory for the forces of Egyptian liberalization. While Twitter and Facebook were tools for disseminating information outside of government-controlled media, they fell short of creating the kind of cohesive community necessary for permanent change. Social media’s dissemination of banned information was the kindling, but what kept the protests in Tahrir Square going, I am convinced, was the self-reinforcing nature of social media messages. “I’m at a demonstration,” although a self-centered tweet, is nonetheless encouragement for others to participate.
After the fall of the Mubarak government, however, it was organization, not individualism, which allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to win the elections and take hold of the government. The forces of liberalization that had driven the revolution broke into self-centered and bickering subgroups that were simply out organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. All the high-minded “here’s what I think” tweets in the world are no match for an organized collective conscience.
            Some worry about the new network’s impact on the collective conscience of our nation. The nation’s Founders created a mediated republic rather than a direct democracy. The question arises whether such deliberative mediation is possible when each person is his or her own private network and the instant gratification of the network becomes the expectation? The deep and convoluted problems that confront us domestically and around the world simply do not lend themselves to the “it’s all about me” instant gratification of social networks.
Historically, our networks – from the railroad and telegraph, to radio and television – joined the nation into an information commons of curated and shared information. The telegraph transformed newspapers from hyper-opinionated local rags to oracles delivering a common set of news and information from afar. Radio and television did the same, adding audio and video to the common experience. Today the openness of our new networks eliminates the curation function that created a common foundation of shared information.
The information commons that bound us together has been replaced by the ability of an individual hub to both select what it wants to receive as well as publish its own perception of the facts. The controversy about President Obama’s birth certificate, for instance, was born and kept alive through the new network. Long after the documentation was provided, the new network kept the topic alive by churning out conspiracy theories. To be fair and balanced, the political left uses the network in the same manner.
            Beyond the ability of individual hubs to select their own “facts,” the collection of data about each individual’s online activity has spawned a whole new business of determining what people want to hear and delivering it to them, often to the exclusion of contradictory data. When software tracks my online activity, determines my preferences, politics, and predilections and then sends to me only information that is compatible with such beliefs, the community is fractured.
            The wonder and power of the new network is how it empowers its users as never before. The challenge we users face, however, is how to avoid that empowerment creating information isolation akin to the pre-Civil War era’s physical isolation. Tweeting to hear my own voice is not a substitute for collective dialog; and we have seen the results in Egypt. If being an individual hub becomes an excuse to ingest only what I want to hear, the information commons at the heart of republican government withers to the detriment of the republic.
Inherent in being an individual hub is a new responsibility not to become an isolated island in the process. Because individual hubs enable the creation of a self-selected network the choice exists whether the new network will be a gateway to an abundance of information and interconnectedness, or a long, narrow and closed hallway that is “all about me.”
            The concept of Ubuntu, therefore, becomes an essential component of our new networked world. As Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu explained, Ubuntu “speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human by yourself.” The nature of that interconnectedness has been changed by history’s fourth network revolution. Like those who lived through the earlier revolutions, we are going to have to discover how community continues as the networks necessary for that community change.