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The Revolution of Relevance

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The Boston-based website PatientsLikeMe.com has created a large community that works together "to enable people to share information that can improve the lives of patients diagnosed with life-changing diseases." To make this happen, they have "created a platform for collecting and sharing real world, outcome-based patient data and are establishing data-sharing partnerships with doctors, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, research organizations, and non-profits." The beauty in their design lies in the fact that the goals they have outlined are easily customized to anyone's personal experience of battling a life-changing disease.

Of course, there's nothing new about advocates who build communities that set goals, solve problems and help achieve better stakeholder outcomes. A for-profit company focused on relief of disease-born suffering is laudable, but not exactly original. What is abrupt and new is the rapid growth and abundance of recently created virtual groups, and how amazingly durable they seem to be. It is no exaggeration to claim that the Internet has transformed the commons from tragic and depleted to vibrant and inexhaustible. "On line" strangers cross domestic class and international boundaries to freely choose their priorities, interests, and new friends.
So begins the Revolution of Relevance.

In this environment, for example, HIV/AIDS becomes a part of an even larger story and no longer an isolated, hyper-stigmatized experience. The 400 public profiles of HIV positive patients -- about 15 percent of the total HIV positive community on this website -- have not only openly disclosed their status, they are sharing tips with others disease-survivors about what works for them. This is an altogether different conversation about HIV then the one shrouded in secrecy that has characterized most of this epidemic's social history. With the 30th anniversary of the HIV epidemic upon us in 2011 it is particularly timely to consider these changes in voice and authorship. Moreover, listening to the on-line narrative is a stark reminder that life-threatening diseases share a common attribute with every problem of moral importance: they have always been conquered by the truth-telling, participation and leadership of those who live with them.

To understand the fundamental importance of the Revolution, consider the work of Giacomo Rizzlatti and colleagues at the University of Parma and V.S. Ramachandran from the University of California, San Diego. Their groundbreaking experiments in neuroscience have led to better understanding of the emergence of culture and civilization. In particular, they've proven that the slow process of Darwinian "learning" -- where accidental mutations can take hundreds of thousands of years to impact skills or behavior -- is naturally accelerated in humans by so-called mirror neurons, what Ramachandran calls Ghandi neurons, that enable immediate emulation and empathy. According to their research, we are, quite literally, connected to what we see.

This is a profound insight. Two people who share a physical space need, roughly speaking, twice as much food, clothing, shelter, and air as one. Three people have three times the basic needs. The requirements grow linearly, in proportion to the number of folk. Yes, there are some basic utilitarian efficiencies, communal agriculture, for example, or other kinds of shared services (like classrooms) that create economies of limited scale. But these are additive. When it comes to language, culture, and invention, however, neuronal connections are essentially multiplicative. An imaginary brain with merely 100 neurons would have over three million ways to connect itself. Human brains have 100 billion neurons. Two human brains have 200 billion. Three have 300 billion. The raw number of possible combinations begins with a "1" and has 75 million zeroes.

So, like Matthew Ridley, we are "rationally optimistic" about the future for the simple reason that the Internet connects brains. Even if it were only one percent efficient, and even if still only a third of us share the line, the permutation has almost a billion trillion zeroes; it's a number so large, there's no name for it. For all intents and purposes, it is countably infinite. "We get that the Internet scales human connection way, way up," explains Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, "and I feel the reason is this notion of 'relevance'. We 'see' our friends and friends-of-friends online in potentially large numbers. This might also explain how power and influence is changing in Net-connected cultures." The results are strong, even if the connections are faint.

A wonderful analogy to the power of weak but persistent connections comes to us from the world of the global positioning system, now a widely proliferated navigation utility. Stanford University's Sherman Lo points out that the signal strength from a GPS satellite is essentially the same as a one hundred watt incandescent light bulb placed 18,000 miles away. The diameter of the earth is just under eight thousand miles, so the beacons we use to guide us around town are incredibly weak, diluted by a distance more than two earths away. Today, we take for granted our ability to pull GPS signals from the clutter of radio, television, and cellular communications, and gripe if we pay more than a couple of hundred dollars for the handheld device, or if it does not automatically update new restaurants geo-located in the vicinity we happen to be.

It is exactly this kind of emergent connection that represents a fundamental shift in the global collective. For the first time, commodity components like 3G telephones and wireless routers give physical voice and enable network access. As Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus, broadcast communication channels have become bi-directional. The intrinsic asymmetry of once-conventional retail media, technologies like commercial radio and television that enabled vivid reception but could not accommodate two-way feedback or discussion, is rapidly flattening. This changing architecture is giving rise to new forms and patterns of communication that are best described as many-to-many. The result is a world governed by relevant, almost-real-time, and perpetually flowing feedback. This constant and permanent traffic of participation is the animating force of the Revolution of Relevance.

Today it is inconceivable that distance or cost would restrict spontaneous -- even impulsive -- exchange with friends, neighbors, and strangers. The themes range from family photos to reviews of restaurants and health services, from Michael Sandel's lectures on "what we owe one another as citizens" to M-Pesa, a mobile micropayment application originally developed in Kenya, with investment from Great Briton, now owned by IBM with plans to expand into Afghanistan in partnership with Vodafone. Last year eight million people transferred more than $3 billion from one account to another.

Social traffic on the cybernet is chaotic, dense, diverse, intense, perverse, international, and glorious. From Russia comes Chatroulette, which randomly connects strangers around the world to each other for the sole purpose of a spontaneous, free, video chat. Its creator is a seventeen-year old high school student in Moscow, who "only had fun in mind". Indonesia stands to overtake Great Britain with the second largest Facebook membership, with Germany and Turkey all in the same neighborhood of more than 20 million members each. The Chinese search engine Baidu is the sixth most popular website on the internet (just after Microsoft's live.com), and the instant messaging service QQ has almost 400 million subscribers; in other words, more than the population of the United States. Half of Orkut's approximately 100 million social networking members come from Brazil, and the Google-owned site is slightly more popular in India than Facebook. From Ghana comes the free pharmaceutical certification SMS service called mPedigree, and (again) from Kenya the open source platform Ushahidi, which allows users to anonymously report violence and crises. According to the New York Times, it was the "hero of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes" and was built in three days. Contrary to popular perception, these are not merely casual affiliations or the dorm rooms of a global pajama party.

Cognitive surplus enables mass collaborations that are the product of shared access to knowledge and decision-making on an unprecedented scale. Selecting what is relevant, and the newly found ability to distribute it, fundamentally changes the way we experience social life and collaborate on difficult problems. The result moves the global commons towards an open-source society where the destructive pieces of social code can get fixed and we can begin the work of relevance and renewal. Now that we are relieved of the burdens of political and geographic isolation, we have the option to work on the creation of robust, and global, civic values. Literally billions of people have already made this choice.

The citizens of this new world belong to an inclusive community that is bonded through weak ties that are continually reinforced through the forward flow of the The Gift, so brilliantly chronicled by Lewis Hyde. Voluntarily giving away what you receive (or what you believe, or what you think, or what you know) is the default action, and anyone who participates becomes a contributing innovator. Just ask Linus Torwalds, the father of Linux, and a progenitor of the Open Source model of software development. The power of these exchanges lies in the cyber-enabled possiblity to meet unlikely collaborators who also get 'it' and are willing to work across divides to enjoy, and occasionally cash in, on the transactions that matter.

Even as the Internet invites participation and benefits by density, its denizens are more vigilant, and more savvy, about protection against encroachment. In June 2010 the Times of India reported that over 2000 people marched in Istanbul against government censorship in Turkey. They have good reason to be concerned, and active. For example, only 0.4% of Ethiopia's 80 million even have slow access to the Internet, and the government turned off SMS messaging during the 2005 elections to restrict the Kinijit opposition from communicating with supporters. (Naturally, it was swiftly circumvented by sending electronic messages through a different channel.) More recently, the Los Angeles Times reported in April that "more than 40 countries actively censor the Internet", many under the guise of preventing illicit activity, most to restrict political speech and exchange.

Because we now have the means of detecting weak signals at a distance, the threshold of group formation and, the assembly of like-minded audiences who can act is much lower. This inevitably begins by voluntarily connecting a personal story to a larger one, or several larger ones, and is a purpose-driven path to express polychromatic civic values. Sharing this expression in the forward flowing gift economy of Life 2.0 makes it easier for people to choose the ones that matter (i.e. are relevant), and share them. No one person, company, State, or region controls the flow anymore. This happened suddenly, peacefully, and quietly; it was driven by technology and innovation, and the fundamental need for humans to connect. The Revolution is as subtle as it is profound.

Truth-telling, participation, and leadership are not unique to patients suffering from life-threatening illness. These variables are fundamental to the healthy flow of a democracy and embody the nodal form of governance that is alive and well on the cybernet. Though truth-telling and participation always take courage, the forces of censorship and slandor have never been better contained. The threshold to build an audience is no longer a barrier and the streams of empathy are converging to make any 'one' story impossible to quell. Perhaps the single largest example of the latter is the current widespread use of social media within the Obama administration.

Every cabinet agency has joined Facebook and the White House regularly sends updates through YouTube. The work of 'governance' is being distributed through the eighth nation in real-time and is yet another example of how harnessing the constant flow of cyberlife and redirecting it in ways that target relevance can leave an indelible mark on democracy. Sonal Shah, who heads the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation at the White House agrees, "we see this at every level of society, now, from specialized education programs to global health and environmental issues. If you're interested and committed, you'll easily find someone to share with. More often than not, it is someone who's making a difference, and who'll welcome the help".

(We would be remiss to leave out that fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs has the single largest Facebook following for a cabinet agency with over 50,000 members.) These changes are meaningful because they personalize governance and show how the benefits of density and exchange are being applied to public life. Furthermore, following the work of the VA on Facebook allows people to incorporate the work of public service into the flow of their daily lives.

The Revolution of Relevance is the ultimate expression of small-d democratic priority and action. It creates the container of a clarifying, even rejuvenating, focus on the restorative gift. It is the currency of connectivity that expands belonging, engenders trust, exposes fraud, builds community, and activates larger, more diverse political participation. It is the mechanism by which we will find solutions to our most urgent problems, because the urgent relevant topics will be dynamically connected to passionate minds, an effect we have shown is scalable and multiplicative instead of linear and additive.

Like all inflections, this revolution will find false paths and land in the cul-de-sacs of the unimportant or sentimental. So be it. The beauty and hope and justice of the revolution is that the power of choice will be decentralized, and only the choices that matter will persist through the open dialog. The rest will evaporate like unsubstantiated rumor and superstition exposed to the fresh air and sunlight of truth . . . and relevance.

Mehret Mandefro is a White House Fellow, and Peter Levin is Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Chief Technology Officer, in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. government or the Department of Veterans Affairs.