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Synchronicity of Ideas in Contemporary Web Culture

In responding to a comment from @MaggieB on our May, 2009 newsletter, A Practical Guide to Social Media, who credited us for devising a “Newfangled” marketing method, I brought up the concept of “multiples,” or the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery. Here’s my comment:

I wish we could take the credit for this approach, but it has really coalesced for us based upon many things: Direct input from people we trust in the industry, books we’ve read, and a general sense that things we’ve been doing for a while now and ideas we value are becoming more valuable to others. One interesting point is the concept of multiples, which Malcolm Gladwell discusses in a column he wrote recently in the New Yorker called “In the Air.” Here’s a pertinent quote:

“This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call ‘multiples’— turns out to be extremely common. One of the first comprehensive lists of multiples was put together by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas, in 1922, and they found a hundred and forty-eight major scientific discoveries that fit the multiple pattern. Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians ‘invented’ decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Bürgi in Switzerland…For Ogburn and Thomas, the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.”

In our case, I wouldn’t want to inflate the importance of what we’re doing by directly comparing it to the kinds of discoveries that Gladwell mentions. But, the general point applies: Sometimes significant ideas occur in multiple places simultaneously, and can best be attributed to the zeitgeist rather than one innovator. I think that is partially what’s happening in our industry. That said, there are important figures that have been at the forefront as mouthpieces for these ideas: Levine, Locke, Searls, and Weinberger, who wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, as well as David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR. I’m sure there are many others that can be credited…

Obviously, our approach was not even a “multiple” in this sense, but simply a practical response to the daily goings-on of our industry, or in other words, a result of being tuned in to the zeitgeist of the web. But the idea of multiples has stuck with me all the same- there is something about it that must apply to what we’re experiencing today. Then, this week, I ran in to another quote on the topic of simultaneous discovery, this time from Kevin Kelly, who in a post to his Technium blog called The Progression of the Inevitable, refers to it as “synchronicity:”

Synchronicity is not just a phenomenon of the past, when communication was poor, but very much part of the present. Scientists at AT&T Bell Labs won a Nobel prize for inventing the transistor in 1948, but two German physicists independently invented a transistor two months later at a Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris. Conventional wisdom credits John von Neumann with the invention of a programmable binary computer during the last years of World War II, but the idea and a working punched-tape prototype were developed quite separately in Germany a few years earlier in 1941 by Konrad Zuse. In a verifiable case of modern parallelism, Zuse’s pioneering binary computer in wartime Germany went completely unnoticed by the US and UK until many decades later. The inkjet printer was invented twice; once in Japan in the labs of Canon, and once in the US at Hewlett-Packard, and the key patents were filed by each company within months of each other in 1977. “The whole history of inventions is one endless chain of parallel instances.” writes anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. “There may be those who see in these pulsing events only a meaningless play of capricious fortuitousness; but there will be others to whom they reveal a glimpse of a great and inspiring inevitability which rises as far above the accidents of personality.

Somehow, looking at this in terms of synchronicity, which Kelly points out can happen in multiples of more than just two or three, seems more applicable to today. It’s harder to see in the same landmark way that things were seen even a decade ago because the transmission of new information is so much more rapid today, but synchronicity is driving the pace of web technology, too. What’s unfortunate is that it’s also driving the desire to always remain on top- to have the most active blog, the largest list of followers on Twitter, friends on Facebook, or reblogged posts on Tumblr (tumblarity, really?) because of our ambition to be recognized as an innovator- the person who came up with the idea first. But consider how difficult that would be to prove today! Perhaps you “tweeted” your new idea at 8:59pm, but several others posted similar concepts between then and 9:05pm. Were you really first? Maybe not.

But ultimately, what does being first matter? What if we were to put away that kind of ambition and elevate cooperation instead, celebrating the synchronicity of our minds enabled by communication technology and the resulting collectivity of ideas? Maybe then we could move past the novelty stage of the web, using it to do more than just create avatars that live there but actually communicate and educate.

After all, one of the most powerful applications of the web could be for education if we so chose it to be.

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