Between South by Southwest and the Cognizant Community 2010 Conference, I’ve heard some fascinating presentations over the last couple of weeks. I want to tell you about one in particular, though, because it introduced me to whole new ideas about how we acquire information.
The speaker was Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School, fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center and author of Enterprise 2.0. McAfee specializes in the application of advanced Internet technologies to corporate communications, and his observations about the impact of Twitter and Facebook on the way we find information raise the possibility that a new kind of search is emerging.
Speaking at the Cognizant conference earlier this week in Scottsdale, McAfee described how much the process of finding information has changed in just the last 15 years. As recently as 1995, the most common reference source we had was a library where professional human curators made decisions about what we needed to know. Information was not only scarce but constrained by space and the limitations of indexing systems that forced information into uncomfortable categories (David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous describes this brilliantly).
When the Internet went mainstream, we initially tried to recreate the curated model online. Remember that Yahoo started as a structured taxonomy designed by humans that organized the Web into categories. There is some value to that, but few people access information that way today.
Instead, we discovered that search engines are faster and bring us directly to the information we’re seeking. It’s amazing how quickly people have discarded the library metaphor that dominated our thinking just a decade ago in favor of search. In December, people conducted more than 4.7 billion searches worldwide every day.
A New Approach to Search
Now there may be a new kind of search taking shape based upon the ask-and-answer principles introduced by social networking. Twitter users understand this well. Let’s say I’m in Chicago looking for a place to take business colleagues to dinner. I can search the Web for restaurant reviews, but I can also ask a question of my followers: “Recommend a good restaurant within 10 minutes of McCormick Place?” Both actions yield useful information, but the Twitter inquiry may actually provide superior value because the response comes in real time from people I know and trust.
I’ve already noticed my behavior changing as a result of this network effect, and perhaps you have, too. When I’m about to make a major purchase decision, I often ask my Twitter followers for advice. In effect, I’m conducting a search against a database of unpublished information that’s stored in people’s memories.
If we can unlock and share this untapped resource, we can potentially open a treasure trove of new information. In McAfee’s words, “Your ignorance makes everyone smarter.”
Organizations that are experimenting with Web 2.0 tools behind the firewall are discovering that this is remarkably powerful idea. For 20 years, we’ve tried to capture knowledge by interviewing veteran employees and storing what they told us in databases. That’s never worked very well because it’s an unnatural knowledge-transfer mechanism. It turns out that people are more generous and spontaneous with expertise when they answer ad hoc questions from peers. Some organizations are beginning to scrap the old tools in favor of this free-form exchange.
The trick is how to preserve, organized and rank this wisdom. You can bet that Google and others are trying to figure that out right now. I was a little mystified last month when Google acquired Aardvark, a “social search engine,” for a pricey sum of $50 million. Aardvark is sort of a structured Twitter; its members can ask questions of others who have a self-declared area of expertise. Having listened to Andrew McAfee’s insights, I now understand better what Google executives were thinking.
This doesn’t mean that today’s search engines will become irrelevant. Social search is an extension of an already-powerful metaphor, and it has some very exciting implications. What do you think? Are there scenarios in which social search could replace the ubiquitous Google query box?