Winter 2010

Thumbing Our Way
to a Peer Information Model

Lenore Weiss, Fiction Editor

This holiday season, on my way to visiting a friend in Louisiana, I spent a lot of time sitting at various airports. There are no direct flights to Monroe, LA, so I found myself running up and down catching different flights at the Denver and Houston airports. On my way to the gate I passed an interesting spectacle: scads of young people in their 20s and early 30s leaning against backpacks and balancing on their laps a computer, a cell phone or game device. I watched as they stared straight into the oracle of their LCDs, thumbs waving and clicking as they conducted an electronic orchestra of iPhone applications, text messages, scrolling at lightening speed through email, destroying battleships, their thumbs doing most of the work.

Being a friendly sort of person, I asked a number of backpack hatchers what they were doing, although it was obvious that they were passing time. Some looked up and smiled.  Others were annoyed by my interruption.  But they all spoke one of either two words: “Facebook” or “Twitter,” and then they wanted me to go away.  Very quickly.

I’ve known about Facebook and Twitter for some time now, and have an account on each service. But the holiday airport experience in the midst of repeated terrorist threats and talks of heightened security brought me to a different kind of “ah-ha.”

I speak as one who has spent the major portion of her working life warehoused in various bureaucracies, except for a brief stint in the dot.com industry.

The real gift of the dot.com days was not about stock options, but in serving as a hot house for new working relationships, a harbinger of social networking. 

After years of occupying a cubicle as a technical writer for the offices of engineering, banking and government firms, I was suddenly asked to speak up and participate, and not just dully nod my head in response to the latest administrative bulletin that had arrived through interoffice mail in an ugly envelope.

At team meetings, everyone who sat around the table was encouraged to generously pipe in at the appropriate moment with suggestions based on our area of expertise. One person wasn't supposed to have all the answers. Each of us were that answer.

Driven to release a new product had the net effect of wiping out years of in-bred hierarchical instinct and replacing it, or at least advancing the notion that collaboration, proven by many managerial theorists whose work had been adopted overseas in countries like Japan, was an alternate way of organizing the workforce.

For roughly five years, from 1995 to 2000, collaboration became a new craze, motivated by profit itself and not by the desire of some soft-hearted sixties refugee like myself who yearned for a more humane way of working.

So what if there wasn't a sound business plan developed by a person who understood a profit and loss sheet? That was a detail. So what if venture capitalists could not recoup their initial investment? Something more was at stake.

Although the dot.com era fizzled out in an explosion of overpriced technology stock, one thing remained clear: there was no one right answer, there was only a team.

Now social networking is changing the way people relate from a top-down bureaucratic model born on the assembly lines of the 19th century to the peer model of the Information Age, which is to say that I’m really glad to see this happening.

Let’s face it: Developing software and applications and technology in the Information Age requires that people exchange ideas, expertise, experience, and talent, forcing a peer model to the forefront.

Like my airport experience, I see that Facebook and Twitter and social networkers everywhere are changing previously established patterns of communication, thumbing a way to new peer relationships. This impacts a long-term top-down hierarchical model of communication where the creator or message sender controlled the dialog.   
There’s signs afoot everywhere. Look at Wikipedia, which is approaching its ninth anniversary. Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia in the process of constantly being created by users throughout the world.   Try a Web search any day and it will most likely include a listing from Wikipedia, another aspect of social networking, where people create and share information.

Marketing groups and major corporations have taken notice. WalMart has jumped on the bandwagon as has ComCast, seeking to repair a less than stellar record for customer service, which is reported in “Twitterville” by Shel Israel.

Or take for example, the December 16, 2009 issue of  “The Huffington Post” where Manish Mehta, Dell Computer’s social-media and community vice president, said that “What we've learned is that social media has transformed the large corporation of the millennium into the Mom and Pop shop of the old days. The emergence of social media simply makes it more possible to connect directly with customers every day.”

On the other hand, learning how to use technology to connect with customers, is giving a good number of baby-boom corporate leaders heartburn, although some like Cisco have decided to nurture that expertise in-house.

According to Norys Trevino, Collaboration Manager and Y-Space coach, “The objective of Y-Space is to help educate and inform Cisco employees about new media tips and tricks, how to work more effectively across diverse generations, how to engage and retain gen-y employees, and explore personal filters related to generational differences.”

So why should we, readers and writers at The November 3rd Club, care about this stuff?

As an online community devoted to both the word and the world, I think we should be aware of these trends, especially as printed newspapers and even books become heavily augmented and possibly replaced by digital readers. In a resource conscious world, online conversation is becoming the dominant model.

On the other hand, what about the quality of the conversation?

Conversations are markets on the internet, advises Patrick Schwerdtfeger in a popular self-help book called Webify Your Business.

“Not only can you participate in the conversation, but you can actually facilitate that conversation as well. Think about the people who built any of the large forums or bulletin boards on the internet. Those people gain credibility by facilitating the conversation.”

Is this a ghost cousin of the hierarchy? Or maybe it’s about contributing something to the larger community. But none of this is really new. There have always been leaders. It’s just that much of what we do as humans—communicating with each other—is increasingly happening inside different forums.  I think that the difference is that now there are more distributed channels of communication, from blogs to Wikis to Twitter to Facebook to alternative news sources and to you name it.

Have you sat down lately to watch a backpack hatcher engage in a text message conversation, marvel at the speed, the truncated lingo, thumbs akimbo, the sheer efficiency of it all?

So I wonder what this says about new literary forms that are based on the collaborative model? Already there are journals like Tarpaulin Sky Press that devote themselves to hybrid forms or to collaborative writing communities like http://www.makeliterature.com/

The January / February 2010 issue of Poets & Writers talks about an online dictionary called Wordnik, which is in the process of being created by a community a users. According to the article, Wordnik has collected more than four billion words of text from Web pages, books, magazines, and newspapers in a mission to chronicle the evolution of language, a new approach to defining a vocabulary that is being bombarded by diverse sources.

I wonder in this emerging global community, if writers will collaborate together on international projects in several languages with the ability to translate back and forth?

What about the addition of visual media and film, YouTube links interspersed in plot lines that can be accessed inside electronic books? These are all questions with a “to be continued” dateline.

However it happens, I’m hoping that there will still remain a place for solitary artists who while participating in the global electronic dialog, can become an expatriate inside their own minds, carefully crafting language and stories away from the consumer conversation that will eternally be filled with news of the best deals to buy right now.  So many writers these days have been forced for political reasons to leave their countries, exiles, who like the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, discovered a homeland inside his head and left us with that legacy.

As literary forms respond to the times, let no one thumb their nose at the continued need for the artist to disengage and reflect about what it means to be human in an information-driven world and one that is increasingly violent.