Isaac Mao (毛向輝) is a venture capitalist and blogger based in the People’s Republic of China. He is a co-founder of CNBlog.org, Director of the Social Brain Foundation and Vice Presient of United Capital Investment Group. Isaac Mao is a speaker of TEDxShanghai.
This article is available in Chinese at Yeeyan.com and TEDtoChina Chinese version website.
With the People of the World Wide Web communicating more fully and freely in Social Media while rallying a Web 2.0 content boom, the inner dynamics of such a creative explosion must be studied more closely. What motivates those who join this movement and what future will they create? A key fact is that a superabundance of community respect and social capital are being accumulated by those who share. The key motivator of Social Media and the core spirit of Web 2.0 is a mind switch called Sharism. Sharism suggests a re-orientation of personal values. We see it in User Generated Content. It is the pledge of Creative Commons. It is in the plans of future-oriented cultural initiatives. Sharism is also a mental practice that anyone can try, a social-psychological attitude to transform a wide and isolated world into a super-smart Social Brain.
THE NEURON DOCTRINE
Sharism is encoded in the Human Genome. Although eclipsed by the many pragmatisms of daily life, the theory of Sharism finds basis in neuroscience and its study of the working model of the human brain. Although we can’t entirely say how the brain works as a whole, we do have a model of the functional mechanism of the nervous system and its neurons. A neuron is not a simple organic cell, but a very powerful, electrically excitable biological processor. Groups of neurons form vastly interconnected networks, which, by changing the strength of the synapses between cells, can process information, and learn. A neuron, by sharing chemical signals with its neighbors, can be integrated into more meaningful patterns that keep the neuron active and alive. Moreover, such a simple logic can be iterated and amplified, since all neurons work on a similar principle of connecting and sharing. Originally, the brain is quite open. A neural network exists to share activity and information, and I believe this model of the brain should inspire ideas and decisions about human networks.
Thus, our brain supports sharing in its very system-nature. This has profound implications for the creative process. Whenever you have an intention to create, you will find it easier to generate more creative ideas if you keep the sharing process firmly in mind. The idea-forming-process is not linear, but more like an avalanche of amplifications along the thinking path. It moves with the momentum of a creative snowball. If your internal cognitive system encourages sharing, you can engineer a feedback loop of happiness, which will help you generate even more ideas in return. It’s a kind of butterfly- effect, as the small creative energy you spend will eventually return to make you, and the world, more creative.
However, daily decisions for most adults are quite low in creative productivity, if only because they’ve switched off their sharing paths. People generally like to share what they create, but in a culture that tells them to be protective of their ideas, people start to believe in the danger of sharing. Then Sharism will be degraded in their mind and not encouraged in their society. But if we can encourage someone to share, her sharing paths will stay open. Sharism will be kept in her mind as a memory and an instinct. If in the future she faces a creative choice, her choice will be, “Share.”
These mind-switches are too subtle to be felt. But since the brain, and society, is a connected system, the accumulation of these micro-attitudes, from neuron to neuron and person to person, can result in observable behavior. It is easy to tell if a person, a group, a company, a nation is oriented toward Sharism or not. For those who are not, what they defend as “cultural goods” and “intellectual property” are just excuses for the status quo of keeping a community closed. Much of their “culture” will be protected, but the net result is the direct loss of many other precious ideas, and the subsequent loss of all the potential gains of sharing. This lost knowledge is a black hole in our life, which may start to swallow other values as well.
Non-sharing culture misleads us with its absolute separation of Private and Public space. It makes creative action a binary choice between public and private, open and closed. This creates a gap in the spectrum of knowledge. Although this gap has the potential to become a valuable creative space, concerns about privacy make this gap hard to fill. We shouldn’t be surprised that, to be safe, most people keep their sharing private and stay “closed.” They may fear the Internet creates a potential for abuse that they can’t fight alone. However, the paradox is: The less you share, the less power you have.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES AND THE RISE OF SHARISM
Let’s track back to 1999, when there were only a few hundred pioneer bloggers around the world, and no more than ten times that many readers following each blog. Human history is always so: something important was happening, but the rest of the world hadn’t yet realized it. The shift toward easy-to-use online publishing triggered a soft revolution in just five years. People made a quick and easy transition from reading blogs, to leaving comments and taking part in online conversations, and then to the sudden realization that they should become bloggers themselves. More bloggers created more readers, and more readers made more blogs. The revolution was viral.
Bloggers generate lively and timely information on the Internet, and connect to each other with RSS, hyperlinks, comments, trackbacks and quotes. The small-scale granularity of the content can fill discrete gaps in experience and thus record a new human history. Once you become a blogger, once you have accumulated so much social capital in such a small site, it’s hard to stop. We can’t explain this fact with a theory of addiction. It’s an impulse to share. It’s the energy of the memes that want to be passed from mouth to mouth and mind to mind. It’s more than just E-mail. It’s Sharism.
Bloggers are always keen to keep the social context of their posts in mind, by asking themselves, “Who is going to see this?” Bloggers are agile in adjusting their tone−and privacy settings−to advance ideas and stay out of trouble. It’s not self-censorship, but a sense of smart expression. But once blogs reached the tipping point, they expanded into the blogosphere. This required a more delicate social networking system and content- sharing architecture. But people now understand that they can have better control over a wide spectrum of relationships. Like how Flickr allows people to share their photos widely, but safely. The checkbox-based privacy of Flickr may seem unfamiliar to a new user, but you can use it to toy with the mind-switches of Sharism. By checking a box we can choose to share or not to share. From my observations, I have seen photographers on Flickr become more open to sharing, while retaining flexible choices.
The rapid emergence of Social Applications that can communicate and cooperate, by allowing people to output content from one service to another, is letting users pump their memes into a pipeline-like ecosystem. This interconnectedness allows memes to travel along multiple online social networks, and potentially reach a huge audience. As a result, such a Micro-pipeline system is making Social Media a true alternative to broadcast media. These new technologies are reviving Sharism in our closed culture.
LOCAL PRACTICE, GLOBAL GAIN
If you happened to lose your Sharism in a bad educational or cultural setting, it’s hard to get it back. But it’s not impossible. A persistence of practice can lead to a full recovery. You can think of Sharism as a spiritual practice. But you must practice everyday. Otherwise, you might lose the power of sharing. Permanently
You might need something to spur you on, to keep you from quitting and returning to a closed mindset. Here’s an idea: put a sticky note on your desk that says, “What do you want to share today?” I’m not kidding. Then, if anything interesting comes your way: Share It! The easiest way to both start and keep sharing is by using different kinds of social software applications. Your first meme you want to share may be small, but you can amplify it with new technologies. Enlist some people from your network and invite them into a new social application. At first it might be hard to feel the gains of Sharism. The true test then is to see if you can keep track of the feedback that you get from sharing. You will realize that almost all sharing activities will generate positive results. The happiness that this will obtain is only the most immediate reward. But there are others.
The first type of reward that you will get comes in the form of comments. Then you know you’ve provoked interest, appreciation, excitement. The second reward is access to all the other stuff being shared by friends in your network. Since you know and trust them, you will be that much more interested in what they have to share. Already, the return is a multiple of the small meme you first shared. But the third type of return is more dramatic still. Anything you share can be forwarded, circulated and republished via other people’s networks. This cascade effect can spread your work to the networked masses.
Improvements in social software are making the speed of dissemination as fast as a mouse-click. You should get to know the Sharism-You. You’re about to become popular, and fast
This brings us to the fourth and final type of return. It has a meaning not only for you, but for the whole of society. If you so choose, you may allow others to create derivative works from what you share. This one choice could easily snowball into more creations along the sharing path, from people at key nodes in the network who are all as passionate about creating and sharing as you are. After many iterative rounds of development, a large creative work may spring from your choice to share. Of course, you will get the credit that you asked for, and deserve. And it’s okay to seek financial rewards. But you will in every case get something just as substantial: Happiness.
The more people who create in the spirit of Sharism, the easier it will be to attain well- balanced and equitable Social Media that is woven by people themselves. Media won’t be controlled by any single person but will rely on the even distribution of social networking. These “Shaeros” (Sharing Heroes) will naturally become the opinion leaders in the first wave of Social Media. However, these media rights will belong to everyone. You yourself can be both producer and consumer in such a system.
SHARISM SAFEGUARDS YOUR RIGHTS
Still, many questions will be raised about Sharism as an initiative in new age. The main one is copyright. One concern is that any loss of control over copyrighted content will lead to noticeable deficits in personal wealth, or just loss of control. 5 years ago, I would have said that this was a possibility. But things are changing today. The sharing environment is more protected than you might think. Many new social applications make it easy to set terms-of-use along your sharing path. Any infringement of those terms will be challenged not just by the law, but by your community. Your audience, who benefit form your sharing, can also be the gatekeepers of your rights. Even if you are a traditional copyright holder, this sounds ideal.
Furthermore, by realizing all the immediate and emergent rewards that can be had by sharing, you may eventually find that copyright and “All Rights Reserved” are far from your mind. You will enjoy sharing too much to worry about who is keeping a copy. The new economic formula is, the more people remix your works, the higher the return.
I want to point out that Sharism is not Communism, nor Socialism. As for those die- hard Communists we know, they have often abused people’s sharing nature and forced them to give up their rights, and their property. Socialism, that tender Communism, in our experience also lacked respect for these rights. Under these systems, the state owns all property. Under Sharism, you can keep ownership, if you want. But I like to share. And this is how I choose to spread ideas, and prosperity
Sharism is totally based on your own consensus. It’s not a very hard concept to understand, especially since copyleft movements like the Free Software Foundation and Creative Commons have been around for years. These movements are redefining a more flexible spectrum of licenses for both developers and end-users to tag their works. Because the new licenses can be recognized by either humans or machines, it’s becoming easier to re-share those works in new online ecosystems.
THE SPIRIT OF THE WEB, A SOCIAL BRAIN
Sharism is the Spirit of the Age of Web 2.0. It has the consistency of a naturalized Epistemology and modernized Axiology, but also promises the power of a new Internet philosophy. Sharism will transform the world into an emergent Social Brain: a networked hybrid of people and software. We are Networked Neurons connected by the synapses of Social Software.
This is an evolutionary leap, a small step for us and a giant one for human society. With new “hairy” emergent technologies sprouting all around us, we can generate higher connectivities and increase the throughput of our social links. The more open and strongly connected we social neurons are, the better the sharing environment will be for all people. The more collective our intelligence, the wiser our actions will be. People have always found better solutions through conversations. Now we can put it all online.
Sharism will be the politics of the next global superpower. It will not be a country, but a new human network joined by Social Software. This may remain a distant dream, and even a well-defined public sharing policy might not be close at hand. But the ideas that I’m discussing can improve governments today. We can integrate our current and emerging democratic systems with new folksonomies (based on the collaborative, social indexing of information) to enable people to make queries, share data and remix information for public use. The collective intelligence of a vast and equitable sharing environment can be the gatekeeper of our rights, and a government watchdog. In the future, policymaking can be made more nuanced with the micro-involvement of the sharing community. This “Emergent Democracy” is more real-time than periodical parliamentary sessions. It will also increase the spectrum of our choices, beyond the binary options of “Yes” or “No” referenda. Representative democracy will become more timely and diligent, because we will represent ourselves within the system.
Sharism will result in better social justice. In a healthy sharing environment, any evidence of injustice can get amplified to get the public’s attention. Anyone who has been abused can get real and instant support from her peers and her peers’ peers. Appeals to justice will take the form of petitions through multiple, interconnected channels. Using these tools, anyone can create a large social impact. With multiple devices and many social applications, each of us can become more sociable, and society more individual. We no longer have to act alone.
Emergent democracy will only happen when Sharism becomes the literacy of the majority. Since Sharism can improve communication, collaboration and mutual understanding, I believe it has a place within the educational system. Sharism can be applied to any cultural discourse, CoP (Community of Practice) or problem-solving context. It is also an antidote to social depression, since sharelessness is just dragging our society down. In present or formerly totalitarian countries, this downward cycle is even more apparent. The future world will be a hybrid of human and machine that will generate better and faster decisions anytime, anywhere. The flow of information between minds will become more flexible and more productive. These vast networks of sharing will create a new social order−A Mind Revolution!
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