Last month, over a billion people around the world suddenly knew the name and appearance of the very same woman, and simultaneously began exchanging opinions about her. And while the unveiling of Caitlyn Jenner is not news in the traditional sense, and there was no shortage of major events erupting around the globe at the same time, the Internet largely converged for several hours around discussions of who Caitlyn was, and what she stood for.
This is actually just the latest instance of what I’ve come to describe as a "micro-singularity," which, broadly defined, happens when the world’s social Internet channels momentarily focus their awareness around a single phenomena, while it’s still happening—Émile Durkheim’s conscience collective digitally transformed into a literal entity. Recent micro-singularities include The Charlie Hebdo massacre, the llama chase, the blue versus gold dress debate, and the Boston bombing with its subsequent manhunt. Japan's Fukushima Disaster, the Haiti Earthquake, and Michael Jackson’s death are milestones in the development of the micro-singularity.
Though we might consider the American Revolution's "shot heard round the world" one of history’s first micro-singularities, digital technology has increased our ability to spread news. But even though they can literally impact the lives of billions in the space of several hours, our official institutions have been slow to understand what they are, how they work, or just as key, how we should deal with them.
At their essence, micro-singularities typically bear these traits:
They're Powered Through—and Evolving Within—Social Media
Thanks to its streamlined UI and the pervasiveness of mobile phones (most people around the world primarily engage the Internet via smartphones), micro-singularities tend to first launch on Twitter, then fan out to the other major social networks. As awareness of the triggering event reaches saturation levels, the micro-singularity generates aftershocks in the form of one or more collective responses, often via meme. So for instance, very soon after the Internet became aware of the horrific Charlie Hebdo shooting, it had also evolved a direct response that spread just as quickly: Je Suis Charlie.
They're Organic, Subjective, and Rarely Initiated by Traditional Organizations
Micro-singularities will occasionally emerge around official, planned events such as the State of the Union or the Oscars; more typically, however, they emerge from the grassroots, powered by what most interests or concerns an aggregate of social media users. For this reason, celebrity related events are just as likely (if not more so) to trigger a micro-singularity, than a "hard news" event. (And even people disinterested in a particular celebrity will find themselves impelled to publicly express an opinion, even if it’s just annoyance.) Cataclysmic weather events, such as tsunamis and earthquakes, are just as likely to cause a micro-singularity, as everyone within the affected region and everyone connected with them can launch a cascade of awareness that rapidly encompasses the world. And as we saw with Justine Sacco’s unfortunate Tweet before flying to Africa, a single individual can trigger a micro-singularity.
They Shape The Reaction of Offline Media and Institutions
Most people around the world are not active Internet users, still getting their news through traditional offline media channels; governments and other legacy organizations also tend to process and respond to major events offline. Consequently (and ironically), the micro-singularity shapes the way these institutions react to the triggering event. For television and radio networks, the very existence of the micro-singularity itself becomes news ("Today the Internet flared up due to…"), while government agencies will sometimes send out actual press releases or hold physical press conferences directly responding to it. (Often hours or even days after it first occurs, a glacial reaction in Internet time,)
This final feature illustrates the challenge we now face: Our traditional institutions are still ill-equipped to deal with micro-singularities now, let alone in the next decade, as billions more join the Internet via low cost smartphones, and micro-singularities become even more frequent, pervasive—and, potentially, hazardous.
As micro-singularlties become a more engrained part of our daily life, our major social groups will gradually adapt to account for them. However, there are strategies we can implement now, so we’re better prepared sooner rather than later:
Micro-Singularity Emergency Protocols
An action plan is especially important for authorities to have in hand, ready to deal with a variety of micro-singularities which have historically led to real world social disruptions. Immediately after the Boston bombing, for instance, Reddit and other Internet communities pinned blame on an innocent person (who had, in fact, drowned weeks before), and little was done to slow down the promulgation of this misinformation. (And mobs using social media to locate truly guilty suspects aren’t particularly appealing, either.) For this reason, this emergency protocol should include plans to locate and protect the subject of a hostile micro-singularity.
Better Social Network Architecture
Twitter and the other key social nodes should immediately add filters and other architectural features to enhance the virtues of micro-singularities, while minimizing their negatives. For instance, Twitter’s "Trending" feature helps highlight the emergence of new micro-singularities, but fails at giving readers a fuller, more comprehensive view of them. And to prevent riots, mob rule, and other real life externalities, trending topics should automatically come with breaking systems—for example, when users attempt to post real life addresses in relation to a trending topic, Twitter could pop up a dialog, warning them of the potential consequences.
Agile, Online, Non-Hierarchal Organizations
The micro-singularity has turned industrial age hierarchy upside down, with our elected officials and corporate/cultural leaders often the last to know when one has been triggered, or why it has. They need to be part of the conversation as they happen, where they happen. All too often, however, the people in direct control of an organization’s social media channels often have the least institutional power, and must kick any response they might make (however important) up the approval chain, waiting precious hours before they can even publish it. Social media can no longer be the province of poorly paid interns, but a core node of every organization; they must learn to respond quickly and authoritatively, but with less top-down control.
Simply put, since the era of the micro-singularity Is less hierarchical and more democratic, institutions must learn to take on those qualities—or find themselves left behind.