I am increasingly convinced that the next explosion in IT is not around content-- it is around context. What's context? It is simply enabling one piece of information (one 'unit') to be related to other units of information (or entire systems of information) and some meaning or insight derived. Humans are great at context-- we can interpret nuances of speech, or even the meaning of words, based on the information systems that surround them.
Innovation and invention come from context-- from taking one system of information (an idea...) and juxtaposing it with as many others as possible, until some insight or meaning becomes clear. The system of molecules known as 'Viagra' failed miserably in its first context (treating angina), but placed in a new context... the rest of the story goes without saying...
Machines are getting better at seeing context (Amazon can start to guess which books you might like next based on the context of what you already bought). But nothing touches the ability of the human mind to see patterns and discern which context have value (based on the combined knowledge and experience of that individual) and which have none (for that individual)
Coupled with the idea (a generalization, I concede) that if you take the sum of all the people in the world, you pretty much have the sum of all human knowledge, then you get an interesting proposition. Namely, if you could take every unit of information and pattern of information (idea) known to every human, and enable every other human to see it in their own contexts, you could uncover every potential benefit for every idea. The millions of 'accidental' inventions just waiting for the right context would be brought to light. The million writers looking for one spark of innovation could find it in the stories (aka context) of some other individual. The million puzzles waiting for that one final piece could be completed somewhere, somehow, but the one person who has that piece, and who just has not seen the perfect context.
Social Media, I believe, will be the activation energy for this explosion. While databases connect units of information, they depend mostly on microprocessors to add value. Social Media connects people- and enables the power of a billion human context generators to come online, and share all those contexts simultaneously, for decision making, inspiration or problem solving.
Omigod! That looks SO good on you!
...this just in-- half way through writing this post, I come across Time Magazine's 'Best Inventions' feature. On the cover was (duh!) the iPhone. But on the list was a casual mention of a new idea that gave me chills, as it brings the whole context explosion to light. It was a dressing room area in a store where, but one where you could try on an item of clothing, and in real time let your friends online see an image of you in the item-- so they could immediately vote on how you look in it. Think about that-- instant perspective and context from all over the web to help you make that buying decision. Group think meets retail in a powerful way. Now take that a thousand fold forward-- maybe it's not your friends who vote, but an anonymous sample of people that fit the demographic to whom you want to appear attractive. You get instant collaboration or feedback to help you make a decision- from the perspectives most important to that decision. Imaging taking that forward into other parts of your life, once the social networking world is organized and intelligent. A nearly infinite number of opinions and judgments (some sound, some off the wall) available to you on any subject. And a further blurring of where the individual context ends, and the group context begins.
OpenSocial and other approaches like it will start to bring together the social fabric of the web. Whether that means hemlines will go up or down next spring, I cannot guess. But the nature of decision-making will never be the same.