Surviving the Net

Who controls TinyURL (or Snurl or other URL shortener) controls the high ground in the battle for the Internet platform. Here’s why: Our brains are wired to protect ourselves from threats to our food, oxygen, and water sources. Most attacks on our supply chains come from those closest to us, our families, friends, business associates, and combinations of those groups.

We handle nourishment requests from our loved ones by sharing, which is another way of saying dividing the materials to just above the point where each portion proves insufficient. Children come first since quieting their cries reduces the possibility of alerting outsiders while requiring relatively small amounts compared to peers. Then the spouse or friend is satisfied, setting up a social interaction around the breaking of bread. “Let’s grab a bite and talk about the deal.”

Once business is discussed, the parties fan out to hunt again. These cycles of search, retrieve, partition, and recharge dominate our lives, albeit pushed into the background by social constructs such as school, work, play, etc. We agree to ignore the pedestrian nature of breathing in and out that underlies everything.

So how do we identify the morsels of necessity? If we were computers, the mechanism would be the interrupt, some input device that triggers a disruption that moves resources to process the incoming data, or a timer-like object internally that wakes up and commands processes to predetermined or calculated rules based on aggregate input over time.

Writing those rules, the logic that defines what constitutes adequate input to get our attention, is in itself one of the most resource-intensive costs of the system. How do we decide what to pay attention to? One important way is by gathering the previous signals from those we share with and ranking them according to priority. Children first, etc. Only when I became a father of a teenager did I realize how irrelevant my concerns were in the face of a fourteen year olds’ makeup gathering needs. How she defines her friendships consumes far more bandwidth for the whole family than virtually every other task.

Interestingly, the younger daughter (7) is old enough to understand the value of drafting behind her sister while making a whole lot less noise about it. I learn much more from her processing of her sister’s signals than I do from the original cacophony. In other words, rules come from observation of the way others handle similar problems. From an early age, our younger daughter would sit in the living room with her back to the action, listening and absorbing the turmoil, and refocusing her needs to the lessons learned.

Today’s information systems begin to emulate these cycles in something we can call real time. The town crier, letters, telegraph, phone, email, IM – the stages of evolution to today’s real time swirl of information overload. As RSS allowed us to orchestrate our input streams into a more interactive daily newspaper, it also created a new measure of authority, one derived in a more personalized way to reduce the flow to something manageable in the time allowable while maintaining the fundamental ability to return to the forest and hunt for the next meal.

This is the point where social media constructs have begun to break down – identifying not just the holders of authority but the very rules by which we decide what constitutes authority, integrity, and credibility. Do we friend everybody, nobody; follow, track, hide? Interestingly, the words mirror the dynamics of the hunt, the foraging, the kill, the triage known as sharing.

What social scientists are discovering is that sharing produces a better outcome than hoarding. As Jonathan Schwartz so ably proved in his conversation at Supernova, Sun Micro’s open sharing of software proves much more efficient in creating a partnership with its customers than traditional marketing. The customers establish a connection by downloading the code, and then continually signal their needs, intentions, and even ideas at a granular level based on how they use the code, update it, ask questions, and so on. Sun turns this into an interactive, real time map that produces much greater lead generation and fulfillment than previous systems.

Our nervous systems are designed to use these real time feedback loops to manage the flow of body resources to confront the task of survival. Establishing the relative weight of signals becomes a substantial portion of our investment in survival. Those nodes that produce the highest value of data in the most efficient form reliably over time win. Applications like Twitturly demonstrate the aggregate power of these distilled signals. Whether Twitter is the ultimate instantiation of this intersection can be debated, but the TinyURL in the center of that system is the payload that most directly connects to our core instincts for preservation.