I’ve been thinking about high school a lot lately. Specifically, the social hierachy of high school; how a certain portion of students are automatically anointed as popular due to athletic prowess and/or beauty. It’s the natural order of adolescence (at least it was in my day) – cheerleaders and football players = popular; geeks = not so much. It’s a precursor, really, to society at large. Generally speaking, there is a pre-determined hierarchy in most circles. Attention is paid to those who succeed financially, athletically, politically, or by sheer force of will (see Tila Tequila).
Sometimes, though, an entirely new sector of society is created in which there are no pre-determined rules. The members of that sector must establish hierarchies on their own and chaos invariably ensues, as people elbow for notice in whatever manner they see fit. The past few years have seen two such sectors brought into being: reality television and the blogosphere. The similarities between the two are striking when you think about it, but most notable is the manner in which “celebrities” in both worlds have risen to the top.
Now before I go any further, let me note one key difference between reality TV and the tech world: there are inordinately smarter people in the latter. The “A-List” in tech is comprised of people who’ve built successful companies on truly innovative ideas, people who can dig down into the trenches of coding languages and produce brilliant technologies used by consumers around the world. For the most part. There are also a few people on that list who would feel right at home on ‘The Real World’ or ‘Survivor.’ (You can tell how long it’s been since I’ve tuned into reality programming.) With no established rules as to what creates success, you’re invariably going to have some who push and scream their way to the top.
But I’m not writing this to revive the argument about who belongs on the A-List and what sort of behavior the blogosphere should reward. Chris and I have both spoken to that particular topic before. What I find truly fascinating is that, in a sense, we’re watching a society form. We’re witnessing what happens when a complete democracy with no established leaders must struggle to anoint some. The eternal cry and hue of the Internet as we know it has been “community,” “democracy,” and “wisdom of the crowds.” But at the end of the day, it’s obvious we need leaders; it’s almost as if we crave them. Call it weakness or natural human condition but it is clear we require names in a sector, no matter the focus. We need people around which to coalesce, to argue, to quote and to denigrate.
The number of measurement tools alone are an indication of how fervently we’re trying to establish a hierarchy. Techmeme, Technorati, Twitterati, Frienderati, magazine rankings, and a thousand different blog posts on who’s worth your time and attention serve a couple of purposes: 1) they help us focus on key voices in the midst of avalanches of content and 2) they’re a good source of names to re-reference when creating your own A-list. Each time a list is discussed, commenters make their own suggestions of who’s worth notice, some of which are then added to ensuing lists, etc etc ad infinitum. It’s a process that seems never-ending, leaving me to wonder how a social hierarchy does finally cement itself in a sector.
I was wondering how to wrap this post up with a pretty bow when an unrelated Twitter conversation caught my eye this morning. Chris lamented the state of online communications and Alex Iskold responded sympathetically. It was his last comment, thought, that really struck me.
For better or worse we are morphing into new creatures. There will be new morals too.
Morals, hierarchies, rankings, social circles – they’ve all been thrown for a loop with the Web’s evolution in recent years. As we muck about trying to find our way, it’s logical that we search for leaders to help steer. I think, though, that what will prevail in the end is the sense of community and democracy that underlies the majority of online conversation. As Web services get better at understanding individual users’ wants and needs, our A-lists will become more personalized. While we will never lose our instinct to list, rank and categorize, the new shape of the Web’s social order demands that we integrate our own interests into popular equations. The ideal end result: cheerleaders, jocks and geeks alike receive the attention they deserve, from the audience with which they most resonate. That may be an uttainable utopia but if it can be achieved anywhere, it’s in the vast playing field of emerging technology.