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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Behavioral Theory

Tagging constitutes a fundamental particle of the kind of “social physics” proposed by Buchanan. Each individual “social atom” makes self-interested decisions when assembling a playlist of songs or videos, tagging a photo or adding a bookmark. Then, when those individual decisions are made public, they add up to the kind of patterns that Buchanan’s sources, like Thomas Schelling, have brought to our attention. Although Weinberger doesn’t refer to Buchanan or Clippinger specifically, the conclusion he draws can be seen as a specific instance of their theories.

Most importantly, Weinberger uses this framework of emergent collective behavior as a way of seeing the deeper and longer-term significance of today’s digital revolutions. Together, nearly 1 billion people online are using the many-to-many digital media to create a new kind of culture, just as Europeans did with print 500 years ago and Phoenicians did with the alphabet 5,000 years ago. As Weinberger puts it:

That humans play a role in categorizing the world is not news. There is a difference now, though. For the first time, we have an infrastructure that allows us to hop over and around established categorizations with ease. We can make connections and relationships at a pace never before imagined. We are doing so to­gether. We are doing so in public. Every hyperlink and every playlist enriches our shared miscellany, creating potential connections that we can’t often anticipate. Each connection tells us something about the connected things, about the person who made the connection, about the culture in which a person could make such a connection, about the sorts of people who find that connection worth noticing. This is how meaning grows. Whether we’re doing it on purpose or simply by leaving tracks behind us, the public construction of meaning is the most important project of the next hundred years.

We are already seeing ample evidence that changes in social practices can presage the opening of a new market or the demise of a business model. Moreover, recent discoveries in the behavioral sciences could prove useful to anyone who is trying to reinvent marketing at a time when customers have become online search experts and are working on their own trust mechanisms for digital commerce. Indeed, anyone concerned about the way shifts in human behavior might affect the business landscape would do well to pay attention to all these books.

Weinberger believes that the trails of all our decision making online will create great cultural resources, that we will create not just surveillance fodder and marketing data but meaning from our transactions and mouse clicks. John Henry Clippinger sees the possibility of designing digital institutions that could create wealth and attack social problems at the same time. And Mark Buchanan believes we are on the verge of gaining much more effective tools for social prediction.

A Crowd of One and The Social Atom provide the theoretical basis for a paradigm shift in the way business is done. Everything Is Miscellaneous shows how, in practice, a new way of knowing can affect every part of our lives, whether pop culture (playlists add up to a valuable resource), national security (Intellipedia is the intelligence community’s version of Wikipedia), or marketing practices that enable customers to have conversations with one another about products and services.

Of the three books, I believe David Weinberger’s is the standout; it is not just prescient and useful, but profound. Weinberger looks deep below the obviously lucrative business model of Internet search and sees how the ability to tag and search extends human knowledge the way mathematics and the alphabet did. Everything Is Miscellaneous is not just the best book on behavioral theory of 2007, it’s the best book I’ve read all year — a rare combination of important social science and business insight, and fun to read. Read it first or read it last — in either case, it will help you put the other two books in perspective.

Author Profiles:

Howard Rheingold ([email protected]), author of Tools for Thought (Simon & Schuster, 1985), The Virtual Community (Addison-Wesley, 1993), and Smart Mobs (Perseus, 2002), coined the terms virtual community and smart mobs to describe the social phenomena that have emerged via the Internet and mobile tele­phony. He teaches digital journalism at Stanford University and participatory media at the University of California, Berkeley. 
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