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Amplification, Retweeting, and the Loss of Source

Jos Schuurmans usefully coins “Amplification is the new circulation”

Jos Schuurmans usefully coins “Amplification is the new circulation.” And then he usefully worries about how to handle the fact that with each amplification, the link to the source becomes more tenuous.

The problem is that the amplification metaphor only captures part of the phenomenon. Yes, a post from a low-traffic site that gets re-broadcast by a big honking site has had its signal amplified. But the amplification happens by being passed through more hands, with each transfer potentially introducing noise, as in the archetypical game of “telephone” or “gossip.” On the other hand, because this is not mere signal-passing, each transfer can also introduce more meaning; the signal/noise framing doesn’t actually work very well here.

Retweeting is a good example and a possibly better metaphor: Noise gets introduced as people drop words and paraphrase the original, and as the context loses meaning because the original tweeter is now a dozen links away. But, as people pare down the original tweet, the signal may get stronger, and as they add their own take and introduce it into their own context, the original tweet can gain meaning.

But, Jos is particularly worried about the loss of source. As the original idea gets handed around, the link to its source may well break or be dropped. “TMZ says Brittany Murphy dead http://bit.ly/6biEQg” becomes “TMZ says Brittany Murphy is dead” becomes “Brittany Murphy dead!!!!!!!!!” and then maybe even “Brittany dead!!!,” and “Britney Spears is dead!!!” Sources almost inevitably will be dropped as messages are passed because we are passing the message for what it says, not because of the metadata about its authenticity.

So, what do we do? I have a three part plan.

Part one: Continue to innovate. For example, there’s probably already some service that is following the tracks of retweets, so that if you want to see where a RT began, you can. Of course, any such service will be imperfect. But the all of the Internet’s strengths come from its imperfection.

Part Two: Try to be responsible. When it matters, include the source. This will also be a highly imperfect solution.

Part Three: Cheer up. Yes, it sucks that amplification results in source loss. But, it’s way better than it was before the Internet when all sorts of bullcrap was passed around without any practical way of checking it out. The Net amplifies bullcrap but also makes it incredibly easy to check it out, whether it’s a computer virus warning passed along by your sweet elderly aunt or a rumor about the spread of a real virus. Also, see Part Two: Try to be responsible. Check out rumors before committing to them. When amplifying, reintroduce lost sources.

As Jos says, amplification is the new circulation. And the new circulation tends towards source loss. It also increases both noise and meaning. And it occurs in a system with astounding tools — e.g., your favorite search engine — for the reinsertion of source.

Is it better or worse? Yes, definitely.

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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