I saw this video yesterday as part of a great Brain Pickings post about “vintage versions of social media”. It contains two things that I really love: Data Viz and a parallel look at how social media ideas of influence and connectivity have actually been with us since the dawn of time.
The video is from a Stanford project which has been tracking the “Republic of Letters”, the correspondence between the European intellectual community between 1500 – 1800. As part of the project the team mapped the correspondence between some of the great minds of the 18th century such as Locke and Voltaire and overlaid them on a map of Europe based on connection and frequency.
The information that was exchanged was vast and built multiple connections and influence across geographies. Much like social media today, the Republic of Letters was a complex social network that allowed for discovery, serendipity, growth and creativity. There were even early mashups, like the astronomical observations made in the Americas ended up in Newton’s Principia. All in all a distant window that demonstrates that things weren’t so different back then in terms of discovery and information exchange.
But at 1:08 of the video there’s an interesting note. Viewing the map of Voltaire’s connections, the researcher points out that he had almost no correspondence with England, something that apparently wasn’t appreciated until this correspondence was mapped out in this fashion. Now I’m hardly a Voltaire expert, but a quick peek at Wikipedia shows that he actually lived in England for three years and had great respect for the British political system, (at least compared to the French monarchy).
All of which makes me wonder, what if Voltaire had had access to an 18th century version of Klout? Could this have helped? Would an 18th century ranking of influencers have helped him connect to with high scoring British philosophers? Would his ideas have improved with feedback from Locke? Would philosophy and the march of ideas have been moved forward hundreds of years? Or would the dissemination of ideas through high scoring sources have disrupted the flow of information for the worse?
In his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” Steven Johnson talks about the concept of the “adjacent possible”, how creativity can spring from ideas and objects that are available within one’s immediate reach or environment. For us this environment includes the overwhelming flow of links, articles and random thoughts we confront every day across social platforms. While tools like Klout can measure and rank focal points of social connectivity, they can’t tell us if these focal points are relevant adjacencies or just a rush of information running through a very fat pipe. So I’d guess that Voltaire probably had enough adjacent possible in France for his needs and if a connection could have arisen in Britain it would likely have been through direct, relevant contact instead of an 18th century compendium of top letter writers.
It’s pretty much the same feeling I have today for tools like Klout and Empire Avenue. Their goal seems to be to try and make social media into mass media channels, but the result feels like it moves us further away from what brought us to social media in the first place, the delight, serendipity and discovery of the adjacent possible.