You know it when it happens: All of a sudden, everyone on the Internet is talking about the same thing. What does it mean for the future of information?
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
Read more: Welcome To The Age Of The Micro-Singularity
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