The physicist Niels Bohr once claimed an expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field. If this is true, then we may be about to see the social web purged of errors as a new class of expert takes shape.
The reason for my optimism is an emerging category of social networks that is springing up to bring together people with specialist knowledge or interests. These places have been built for small numbers of enthusiasts to join conversations, while larger numbers can witness what unfolds. Three such networks have been announced or come out of their private beta all within the past month and these are each noteworthy in their own way: Menshn, Branch and Medium.
These networks all perform a similar task: they try and make it easy for people to start a conversation on a specific subject and they make it easy for people to find that conversation (Menshn), they allow participants to invite others into the conversation (Branch) or they make it easy to contribute at a level to suit your time and interest in the subject (Medium).
Getting specialist on the social web
Since the days of bulletin boards and newsgroups, the web has always had a tendency to coalesce around subject matters. More recently, this has proven to be one of the strengths of Quora, a place where topics as arcane as starfish limb regeneration, the thermodynamic characteristics of absolute zero and who is really the Lord of the Rings are unpacked with minute precision by passionate wonks, ensuring that normal people remain on the sidelines. The best upvoted conclusions then become part of the social web and pop up in search results should you ever find yourself needing the answer to such a niche question.
The idea of the specialist-yet-public online conversation has also gained currency recently with the introduction of Google Hangouts. Up to ten people can join a Google Hangout as contributors, but an infinite number can watch and listen as the experts (or simply those who arrived first) conduct a public dissection of a topic. The process bears a strange resemblance to those public autopsies conducted in the lecture theatres of seventeenth century medical institutions.
Experts with shared interests
What Menshn, Branch and Medium all have in common is that they are designed to bring together smaller groups of people with a requisite interest in a subject. So this is a new generation of social media, built around the idea that people who share deep interests can contribute more valuably to a conversation on those subjects, but that the conversation itself is most valuable if it is transparently available for consumption by anyone else who may be interested in the subject.
It’s a recognition that there’s a limit to how much people are prepared to engage fully in public conversations on subjects that are either so nuanced that they are prone to attract participation by people who have only a loose grasp of the facts, or so truly geeky that you’d think twice before committing your views to the public sphere of Twitter or Facebook.
I am so loving the 2nd law of thermodynamics this morning. I mean, people, who else *isn’t* glad time goes forwards not backwards?
— Peter Sigrist (@psigrist) August 15, 2012
These new approaches are also a recognition that complex topics are sometimes best tackled collaboratively. Rather than big-brained individuals sitting alone in dorm rooms or office cubicles getting to the bottom of difficult issues, conversations between groups of interested people can go deeper, over a longer period of time. And this is where there’s a chance that these interest networks may have something powerful and valuable to add to the social media mix.
Other takes on the emergence of the specialist network include Svbtle, which invites experts to its panel of bloggers and The Browser, which curates what its editors believe is the best writing on the web. Look around the web and the interest graph is becoming a fundamental element of the structure of the web and the way content is channelled, whether you think about browsing at a desktop or conducting local searches on a mobile device.
And as with all emerging trends, the impact on companies and brands using social media to listen to and communicate with audiences is likely to be far reaching. For now, we’d say just sign up for the new services and try them for yourselves.