The best filter for serendipity is smallness

The recent blowup about what Ethan Zuckerman calls attention ethics surprises me a little, but not a lot. A comment by Ito Kagehisa at Boing Boing provides the best summary of the kerfuffle:

some knuckleheads decided to ask everyone on twitter to bombard people designated as “celebrities” with tweets about the knuckleheads’ self-promotional charity efforts. Xeni was unfortunately targeted as one of the celebrities, she got ridiculous numbers of pointless tweets (because the whole idea is stupid) and at some point she was annoyed enough to tweet “fuck off”. Then it turned really ugly and personal – enough so that the original knuckleheads were ashamed and appalled, and any charities involved are probably completely mortified.

I sometimes ask my students if the churn of new media platforms is ever likely to abate. Some think that technology will eventually exhaust itself and others think technology will always somehow improve. To me, the answer lies with the structure of community rather than the features of technology.

In this case, we’re seeing the topical #-spam (of 2009) complemented by @-spam (of 2012) through which advocates attempt to gain the attention and re-tweeting power of celebrities. (A great example of the opinion-leader model). @-spam is interesting in that much of it is for a purportedly good cause. Hence, it is not easy to ignore or say “fuck off.” (And Xeni’s doing so is what caused much of the vitriol I suppose.) One might ask if we could build an even better filter? What if we limited the tweets we see addressed to us to those we have tweeted ourselves? This is certainly possible. However, once Twitter begins being used in this way, it will have lost some of its value. Over a decade ago, Cass Sunstein was worrying about a new media world of perfect filters and asked how would we ever encounter serendipity in such an environment? Granted, some people make use of the shuffle and the random button, but the best filter for serendipity is smallness. Once a community reaches critical mass, where critical mass is indicated by the presence of spam, it will never feel the same as a small community, even with “perfect” filters. It is thrilling to unexpectedly learn something, make a new friend, or find a new passion. Once this becomes difficult, novelty junkies will move on to the next media platform and thrill in the experience of being open to serendipitous interactions – before that community gets too big itself.

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