Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tensions Inherent in the Many to Many World

As I prepare my keynote for THE Conference in Doha, Qatar later this month, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the changing dynamics inherit in the shift from the one-to-many world of our past to the many-to-many world of our present and future. If you have been following my twitter feed, you will have noticed my preoccupation with the concept of the many-to-many world. As I think about opportunities at work, challenges and opportunities in higher education, and social struggles in the United States and elsewhere, it's increasingly obvious that many of the tensions we see today are natural consequences of the shift from a world characterized by one-to-many relationships to a world characterized by many-to-many relationships.

I use the phrase "many-to-many" in the context of the different types of electronic communications made possible by the Internet. The first type, the one-to-one form, is represented by email, where one individual uses the Internet to communicate with one person. The second type, the one-to-many form, is represented by the World-Wide-Web, where individuals use platforms like this blog to share and distribute content to as many individuals as possible. The third type, the many-to-many form, is represented by social networking tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia, where individuals use the Internet to collaborate with others on a massive scale.

I operate from an assumption that the one-to-one and one-to-many forms were about using the Internet to replicate the basic types of social relationships that existed in the physical world.  But the shift from one-to-many relationships to many-to-many relationships represents something quite different than what has existed previously.

The One-to-Many and the Many-to-Many Worlds

While the Internet resulted in one-to-one and one-to-many communications that were more efficient and less costly, it did nothing to disrupt the traditional, hierarchical relationships present in the physical world. That is to say, that the Internet dramatically increased the scalability of the first two forms of communication, but did not fundamentally change the nature of power and authority inherent in most social relationships - that is, until widespread adoption of social networking sites and mobile devices. With the adoption of these tools, our capability for many-to-many relationships has increased exponentially while the costs for such collaborations has dropped to next to nothing.

This has inverted the value propositions inherent in one-to-many and many-to-many relationships. Previously, hierarchical models were more efficient and less costly, but social networks have changed that. It is this shift that has disrupted traditional notions of power and authority, whether we are talking about the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, the faculty rebellion against publishing giant Elsevier, or the recent backlash against the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Each of those stories is about individuals, who tend to have less power in one-to-many relationships, coming together through social networks and leveling the playing field against entrenched powers.

Whether this is good or bad depends upon your perspective, as one individual's positive change can be another individual's mob mentality. This is because the rise of the many-to-many world has also disrupted traditional notions of authenticity. What is fact and what is opinion? If thousands of individuals believe something to be true even though mathematically it might not be possible, does that make it less true or less factual? The post-modernists would say that it doesn't, but it is the nature of these tensions between power, authority, and authenticity that are hallmarks of the many-to-many world that we today find ourselves in.

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