The Exponential Power of 140 Characters

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Steven Berlin Johnson has a long and rewarding reflection on the swiftly growing power of micro-information in the digital age:

The overall increase in textual productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years. Think about it this way: let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links” to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a Columbia journalism lecture and you link to it on your page. The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic. Fast forward to 2010, and you check-in at Foursquare for this lecture tonight, and tweet a link to a description of the talk. What happens to that information?

For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the web, which then attracts advertisers interested in your location or the topic of journalism itself. Because that tiny little snippet of information is free to make new connections, by checking in here you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping the Journalism school in promoting this venue; you’re helping the bar across Broadway attract more customers, you’re helping Google organize the web; you’re helping people searching google for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students. Not bad for 140 characters.

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