As Coolidge put it, 'the chief business of the American people is business', but what is now business is sometimes hard to understand. Silicon Valley is the engine of an online economy that is now the size of a medium country, but a lot of what it does is free, or at least appears to be be done for nothing. Twitter is perhaps the most famous current U.S. innovation that, at the moment, is not 'monetised' (this, though, will surely not be long - it's already valued at $1 billion).
Americas Collections is, of course, interested in the business of the U.S., and not just from a cultural or historical perspective - colleagues in Business and IP Centre in particular make great efforts to make information available to entrepreneurs, lawyers, NGOs, and so on. So, I was pleased to get an invitation to a talk at NESTA on Social Media - a force for good as part of the Silicon Valley comes to the UK programme (it also ties into some of my work on 'C21st curatorship'). Not only could we hear Biz Stone, the founder of Twitter and Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, but also on offer was Stephen Fry, who, as the NESTA chair said, needs no introduction.
There were some of the usual venture capital types and web startups doing their delicate courtship dance, but also a mix of politicians, journalists and think tankers. The talk itself was unusually interesting - and should be available online, if NESTA's servers take the strain. Fry, in particular, responding with charm, elegance, placed these new communication tools in a broader context, alluding to the changes wrought by the printing press, and reminding us that the titles we remember from the eighteenth century are the Tatler, the Idler, the Spectator - magazines and journals that offered a human, amusing, interesting, and quite often apparently trivial view on the human carousel. For Fry, the joyous thing about Twitter is that it makes communication personal and human; it invests work with emotion. The internet, he argued passionately, is at heart a deeply literary thing.
There were also questions about the 'road map' for Twitter, privacy, 'deadwood' news, mob rule, and the intersection between politics and international relations; again, they should be on the NESTA stream. Matthew Taylor of the RSA asked two very important questions about the lack of real sociological and orthographical research on social media, and the extent to which powerful organisation and governments were able to manipulate or exploit sites such as Twitter. I wanted to ask about how this stuff might be accessed by future historians. Next time...
Americas Collections also has its own Twitter stream (the term 'feed' sounds too much like Reuters, it seems). It's turning out to be a useful way to communicate with scholars, publishers and others libraries, so feel free to join in.
In some ways, though, it's not so much about the tools, as the communication and the contacts that make up this new 'Republic of Letters'. And sometimes the old ones are the best. I brought a pencil with me to make some notes, but not a sharpener. So, thanks are due to Basheera Khan of the Telegraph (@bash) who lent me a very nice pen.