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The Social Life of Information

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Anyone who has ever posed an inquiry to the vast communities that weave the tangled web of the Internet may have begun to notice a trend. Specifically, despite the growing -- and global -- pool of social media users, individual social circles seem to be getting smaller and smaller, or at least more familiar. More and more early adopters and technology enthusiasts are preaching about the antiquated role basic web searches have taken on in the broader online landscape. With the recent launch of Google+, even Google itself has all but admitted as much. Googling the nearest hardware store or Thai restaurant just doesn't offer the kind of hyper-personalized information that users are so accustomed to getting via their online social networks and circles.

Now more than ever, it's clear that information sources and sharing are becoming increasingly social. While Google has excelled over the past decade at sorting and ranking the world's information in a way that has essentially put the entire world right at our fingertips, it's falling behind when it comes to leveraging the power of social connections.

As it turns out, being able to ask anything isn't nearly as handy as having those you trust suggest what to ask -- or better yet, as on message boards or social media sites, offer you the information you're looking for before you even have to ask the question.  But the power of a network is not just that it continuously feeds us the answers to our questions. Perhaps more importantly, it gives us a reason to care in the first place. More and more, consumers crave technologies that are structured to capitalize on this power, and that's why Google and other technology companies are getting serious about the social game.

The introduction of Google+; into the market marks a real paradigm shift -- not so much because it is innovative; in fact, most critics would argue that it is simply Facebook with a sexy fig leaf. Rather, it's that Google has dared to enter Facebook's coveted social space. By venturing into Facebook's territory, Google has tacitly acknowledged that the future is not about cataloging all the "1s" and "0s" in the universe, but about making data personal. Put another way, the future isn't simply about empowering individuals with more information, but about fostering and sustaining communities where people can share that information with each other.

There is a great deal of irony in this paradigm shift.  Twenty years ago, Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone in part to chronicle how the march of technological progress spelled the decline of communal life.  This was true because the technologies we had twenty years ago were designed less to enhance social bonds and more to please individual urges.  The rise of personal computers, DVDs, digital television, and other technological frontrunners seemed to push us toward becoming increasingly solitary beings.

Now, however, the steady march of technological progress is bringing us back together as a community.  It's no longer necessary to sift through a vast sea of data on the Internet to find answers, recommendations, or endorsements. Now we get our news from Twitter feeds, our reading recommendations from Facebook friends, and our plans for the evening from Foursquare.  The information we're looking for comes directly to us, from those that we trust within our social networks.  More often than not, this information is taken to heart simply because of the sender.  

We are entering a new phase of the information era -- one in which we recognize that our online communities are more than the sum of their parts. Though we are constantly expanding our networks online and offline, somehow our worlds are once again getting a bit smaller. The technology companies who will succeed in this new environment will be the ones who learn how to adapt quickly to the changing times by giving people what they want, in a way that matters to them personally.

Aaron Rudenstine is the co-founder of CityMaps, an online service offering consumers one-stop access to hyper-local and real-time information about their cities.

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