Changing the world is an activity built atop a foundation of persuasion and relationships, whether is a matter of creating entirely new technology or ensuring the widespread use of existing technologies. It always moves more slowly than advocates would like, even when things are progressing well, such as at the present time with regard to the public view of research into the effective treatment of aging. The past couple of years have seen a real transition in public perception and media treatment of aging research, the result of more than a decade of hard work and investment behind the scenes, all largely unnoticed. There are never any breakthroughs or sudden sweeping reversals in life: it is all a matter of the pieces finally falling into place, of the finale to a play that you just weren't paying all that much attention to while it was taking place.
The great revolution of our era is the plummeting cost and increasing capacity of computation. That has enabled all of the other transformative revolutions presently underway, such as in the cost, capabilities, and availability of communications technology and biotechnology. In communication especially, the cost of near instantly delivering old-style text from one person to another has fallen so far as to be essential zero, minuscule in comparison to the opportunity cost of time taken in composition of the message. Similarly, the cost of publishing to an audience has fallen to be essentially zero in comparison to the cost of finding that audience.
It is no coincidence that advocacy for longevity research, just like every goal originally held by a tiny fraction of the populace, has taken off in parallel with the growth of the internet. Beforehand, how were the one in a hundred or one in a thousand interested enough to talk and do something ever going to find one another? Now a special interest group of just a few hundred or few thousand people can span the globe and yet still be organized and effective, and for next to no cost beyond the time taken to participate. This is ideally suited to non-profit and advocacy organizations, and the last few decades of initiatives relating to extending the healthy human life span have seen many such organizations assemble via connections made online.
In this sense social media, a term I detest, means nothing more than communication. Everyone today has a near-zero-cost printing press and mail room. When everyone can act as their own newspaper, most people will do just that. Most of the resulting output is trivial, of course, because most conversations are trivial. But of those who have something to say that is worth listening to, more of that message will find a willing audience rather than being lost to the void. Of course there is always a power law of attention, there are always the professionals sitting on top of the pyramid, but ultimately we are expanded and improved by our new capabilities, each of us our own media outlet.
There are always those who mistake the shell for the snail, however. You can't force a conversation, or indeed any sort of meaningful outcome, by turning a crank and sending links here and there aimlessly, by counting posts and metrics. If there is no conversation, all of those mechanical actions, "social media activity", are just hollow. In all of my experiments in that, and all of the other experiments I've had the dubious pleasure of watching in the course of gainful employment as a technologist, I've become convinced that the only thing to do is have conversations. Talk to people. Publish what you want, and let people talk about it at the pace they want to talk about it. You can't force growth in advocacy, and it's really hard to measure where exactly you are in that process with the tools that social media companies force upon you. Advocacy for a cause doesn't have conversions and funnels that can be measured on a website or in an email, no matter what those selling you metrics engines might say. You end up with a lot of numbers and no real way to connect those numbers to anything that actually matters as a bottom line. So why try? There are share buttons here at Fight Aging!, hidden, not loaded at all until you request the tool, because people kept asking for them, not because I'm hot on creating larger numbers in a report.
So: we live in an age of ever more pervasive communication. That is important, very important, to all endeavors, and in ways that we haven't yet figured out. A lot of the more active members of the longevity science advocacy community are engaged in trying out new modes of organization and communication, building the community, present in ever new form of social media. But this is all, ever and always, at heart a conversation. It goes at its natural pace. We shouldn't forget that just because the tools of the trade are shiny and in everyone's hands these days.
Longevity online: can social media take life extension ideas from the radical to the mainstream?
To confront death is to face our biggest fear, and unfortunately for advocates of life extension, this is something which the majority of people are not presently inclined to do. Like any industry, the level of investment in life extension technologies and the resultant supply of treatments are directly related to demand. Therefore, for governments, scientific institutions, and venture capitalists to invest within the field, the demand from consumers simply has to be there. Recent big budget ventures spearheaded by some of Silicon Valley's most high profile companies and individuals go a long way to speeding up the rate of research and development as well as raising awareness of the cause, but for those looking to really accelerate the rate of progress, the question is how to get enough of the population onboard to significantly impact upon the rate of change.
In the 21st Century, social media has emerged as by far the most efficient and accessible platform for engagement between like-minded individuals, promoting shared ideas, and ultimately mobilising the general population into action. In fact, in our increasingly globalised world, such is the centrality of social media and its capacity to facilitate instant worldwide communication, one can argue that without it any movement or form of promotion is likely doomed to fail.
As a characteristically tech-minded community, it is therefore no surprise that the power of networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Linkedin, and Reddit as tools for furthering the cause of life extension has not been lost upon its most engaged advocates. One only has to peruse the most popular channels Facebook and Twitter to find literally hundreds of groups and profiles dedicated to life extension and longevity, with thousands of members based all over the world. Such high-levels of activity, one would assume, can only be a good thing for the life extension movement, but in terms of really taking life extension ideas from the radical to the mainstream, how far does social media currently go?