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“Every little piece in your life will mean something to someone”

It’s a big idea – and the lyric in a song called ‘The Weight of The World’, by Editors.

At the time I heard it, I was thinking about Akvo’s purpose both for those who use it and those who create it. And it got me asking this question:

“Could everything you do, and everything you know, mean something to someone out there?”

I’ve raved on to many of you about the arguments of writers such as Chris Anderson and Tapscott-Williams. Both The Long Tail and Wikinomics argue that the massive efficiencies of digital storage, high quality search and low cost distribution open up big possibilities. The chance for millions of niche markets for products and expertise, maintained by people with great specialisation, all supported by generalists who create modular tools to help them find their audiences and make the process work.

In isolation the idea might seem crazy – surely billions of people seeking answers can’t possibly find the needles in the haystack? Especially if it’s not “managed”. After all, the information you find is never in the end as good as you seek. And that will never change, surely? Like talented kids left to express themselves through graffiti, the world will pass by and ignore the clues.

Making knowledge move

Fortunately something else is happening in parallel, to shape this intriguing possibility. Alongside the above is a new generation of knowledge disseminators who are beginning to change how information is communicated inside and outside organisations. These people – and they may well include you – dramatically speed up the pace at which insights are bounced around the world, or indeed bounced around an organisation. And they use tools that are categorising and structuring information without needing centralised databases or knowledge structures.

They use a mix of communication systems, some of which are direct person-to-person, but many of which are ‘ambient’, meaning they are published and can be followed but aren’t forced on people. For example, they may post a link to an online social network, where they’re visible to their ‘followers’. Or they may flag a quick link to someone using email, SMS, instant messaging or similar tools. Or they may include a link or reference in a blog article or in a comment on someone else’s.

Why they do it is the surprising bit. Right now, The New Participants aren’t normally paid to do the task at hand. They may be in a related sector, or they may be aspiring to do the work professionally. Or they may have done it in the past, before retiring or focusing elsewhere. But the general rule is that they only need a computer and a web connection to participate, either at home or at work. In the past this kind of person couldn’t get involved – they needed access to a closed corporate network or specialist equipment, subscriptions or publishing tools.

A lightness of touch

So what information gets sent? At first, surprisingly little. The initial data flows are usually very light – often just a short caption and a web link. My Twitter feed, for example, is limited to just 140 characters. What these people aren’t sharing is large pdf documents, or Powerpoint decks, or 300 page Microsoft Word reports.

But this lightness is deceptive, as the web link will often lead to a piece of online content that can contain many links to further detail, so the information pile is deep, but doesn’t burden those who aren’t interested.

Now is a great time to start publishing content in ways that these disseminators can harness and it’s vital that Akvo becomes as open and discoverable as possible, right now. That way, we can be watched, used, shared, improved and built upon by these new networks of participants.

In my next article I’ll be describing how we need to work to support these networks, and how we can ensure almost all our work is discoverable and transparent unless there is a very good reason not to be. This includes some of the psychological barriers we all feel as we begin to publish, openly, our own work, and we learn to cope with the resulting attention.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo and directs its communications. Thanks to everyone who has been so patient with me, after I broke my arm last month. I can now type again, so I’m no longer behaving like an angry teenager without a purpose.

Photo: Graffiti in Cartagena, Spain (presumably by an angry teenager). Mark Charmer, May 2008.