I remember the moment very clearly, the way you often remember moments when the axis shifts and you get a glimpse of the future.
It was the late 1980s. I was at a school-within-a-school in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, surrounded by 9-year olds. The kids were part of collaboration between Seymour Papert’s MIT lab and the Hennigan School and I was reporting on the school’s ‘computer pen pal’ project for the Boston Globe. The project linked kids from JP with kids in Geneva and Costa Rica, via a Smithsonian network. It was a fascinating new idea.
“So” said one young man with the all the authority that only a 9-year old can project, as he pointed to a computer, the sky, and some point out in the distance, “We write here, then it goes there, and then they read it.”
“Wow, isn’t that hard?” I said like some idiot adult. He just looked at me with disdain and sort of rolled his eyes as if this were merely a normal every day activity. And to him, it was.
Wooosh, the ground moved.
And then the teacher introduced me to a young lady who had been doing daily correspondence with a new friend in Costa Rica. They wrote about cats. And cats. And more cats. The teacher laughed as she wondered how much you could possibly say about cats.
Woosh, the ground moved again.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the ringing of the closing bell at NASDAQ in New York last week on August 25. Standing there – and projected out seven stories over Times Square no less! – were a group of software developers from the Cape, representing the Cataumet company Genevate.
Genevate is development partners with a company called StockTwits and the group was in New York to celebrate DataJunkies, a project in which NASDAQ supports social media interaction by, for, and about investment, by integrating NASDAQ's real-time data to StockTwits' community of active traders.
StockTwits began as a Twitter steam and this week launched its own desktop application, which was also developed by the Genevate team on the Cape. StockTwits has community, it has cash flow, it has buzz. It has personalities, it has video, it has brand.
Twitter – and micro-blogging in general – has left many people shaking their heads. What is so compelling about a bunch of people talking about themselves? Or about some narrow topic over and over again?
People have long feared that the rise of computers would create a world of isolated digital junkies who never connected with anything real. But the exact opposite has emerged.
The NASDAQ gets it. People like talking to other people, listening to other people, and following what other people do. So what if they do it through a data stream? It’s just the easiest way to connect. Hence, the DataJunkies project.
StockTwits sees it too. Daytraders, swing traders, and all sorts of investors might work by themselves, hunched over a computer and tapped into the Internet, but that doesn’t mean they are disconnected from the world. Their world, their community, is all the other day traders and swing traders and investors who are doing the same thing -- and talking about it in mind-numbing detail. It’s cats, cats, and more cats all over again.
The micro-blog is the prefect platform for chatter. Chatter is part of the social glue that binds a community together. In the face-to-face world, chatter happens as we pass by a desk or pause at the coffee machine. In the virtual world, chatter is what happens on Twitter. And vertical community chatter is what happens on StockTwits.
Through chatter, individual voices emerge. Pretty soon we're looking for the words for certain people. Patterns and history and informal rules and roles happen. We’re social creatures and social structures come into being almost organically.
It’s informal. It’s often spontaneous. It flies by. People drop in, drop out, drop in again. And of course, it’s unconstrained by physical location. We type here, it goes up there, they read it there. Distance doesn’t matter. It just happens.
StockTwits is today’s news. Reviews, like the techblog TechCrunch see it as an example of what can spin out of Twitter technology.
But as I remember that day in the Hennigan School, I think it is really one more example that answers some questions that Seymour Papert posed in a 1987 paper:
So we are entering this computer future; but what will it be like? What sort of a world will it be?
There is no shortage of experts, futurists, and prophets who are ready to tell us, but they don't agree. . . .
Who is right? Well, both are wrong -- because they are asking the wrong question.
The question is not "What will the computer do to us?" The question is "What will we make of the computer?" The point is not to predict the computer future. The point is to make it.
And that’s what people who chatter on Twitter, and the software developers at Genevate and all the creative technology folks everywhere are really all about – about making that future.
Happy September, and may we all have a great school year finding and creating our own future with the cool technology that's all around us.