During the Enlightenment, the greatest minds were tweeting. Instead of utilizing the medium of the internet their network for spreading ideas were "penny universities." For just a penny — the price of a cup of coffee — diverse groups of people gathered in English coffeehouses to discuss news and debate the latest ideas in philosophy, science, and politics. The takeaways from these gatherings in the coffeehouses — dubbed “penny universities” — spread to others in the network through individuals called "runners." All of us today rest on the shoulders of those who sat in these penny universities, pushing the frontiers of ideas.
Fast forward to today and one might observe that the penny university model has ostensibly been replicated. In the digital town square of the internet, anyone — and everyone — can gather and engage in a wide-ranging conversation. Gone is the requirement of a physical space or the entry fee of the price of a cup of coffee. With the internet, we all have access to the world at our fingertips. Conversations pass through the varied modern penny universities of social media by way of the modern-day “runners”: shares, retweets, and links. Tapping into the potential of these modern-day runners means the chance that an idea can spread like wildfire and connect with a massive audience.
With that said, this picture is far too rosy. Yes, access has never been better and collaboration can be effortless. However, today's digital town square is woefully missing something. Those first penny universities were rooted in both a community of place and a community of purpose: the students were serious about contributing to the vibrant network of knowledge by way of gatherings over coffee in physical spaces. Only after intimate and fervent debate did the runners circulate ideas.
With widened access we've sacrificed an enviable signal to noise ratio. Often, people unwittingly choose to add noise. Our conversations in the hallways of the modern penny university can't just be about what's trending by virtue that it is trending. What is important may prove to be viral, but what is viral isn't always important. Technology isn't the problem; how we use it is.
We are all runners now in a massive network of penny universities When we pass something on, we are signaling its importance. Each of us has a small share of the responsibility to make our conversations mean something and to push the envelope yet again. A revitalized network committed to the project of the old English coffeehouses could demonstrate the impact of reasoned and intentional discussion. We could be on the precipice of another Enlightenment. Today, walk through the gates of our modern penny universities mindfully and take your role in the great debate of ideas seriously.