For those who have not entered the world of Twitter, it is hard to fathom why people feel compelled to stream their lives to strangers 140 characters at a time. And such non-Twitter folk are also unlikely to fathom the purpose of blogging, especially in a world with more than 170 million blogs. Imagine the non-tweeting non-blogger’s disbelief, then, when they read story after story about how Twitter, Facebook, Wordpress, Posterous and the other “Social Web 2.0” heavyweights are changing the world as we know it. “Hogwash!” might be their succinct reply.

But for those of us who have entered the world of social media, it is clear that there’s much more going on than streaming one’s life to strangers. So much is going on, in fact, that you could spend the rest of your life reading hack books on how to “do” social media more ably. And you could choose to connect only with “social media” gurus on Twitter and still acquire more than 100,000 “friends”.

With more than a half billion people hooked into social media, something big is, indeed, happening. But what? There are a variety of candidates to point to: the greater interconnectivity, the nature of the connectivity (e.g., “small world”), the speed at which information courses through the networks, the exposure to a wider variety of people and ideas, the enhanced capability for collaborations, the tight wedding of human connections with web content, and so on. 

There is, however, one facet of social media that has gone largely unnoticed: Multiple personalities. Upon soaking myself in social media over the last year, I was surprised to find that many of those most steeped in social media maintain not just one blog, but several (and in some cases more), each devoted to his or her distinct interests. I have also found that it is similarly common to possess multiple Twitter identities; in one case it was weeks before I realized two “friends” were actually a single person. Maintenance of multiple personalities in real-life flesh-and-blood social networks is considerably more difficult. 

At first I felt these multiple personalities were vaguely creepy. “Figure out who you are, and stick with it!” was my reaction. But gradually I have come to appreciate multiple personalities (and so have I). In fact, I now believe that the ease with which social media supports multiple personalities is one of the unappreciated powers of the Social Web 2.0.

To understand why multiple personalities are so powerful, let’s back up for a moment and recall what makes economies so innovative. While it helps if the economy is filled with creative entrepreneurs, the fundamental mechanism behind the economy’s genius is not the genius of individuals but the selective forces which enable some entrepreneurs to thrive and others to wither away. Selective forces of this broad kind underlie not just the entrepreneurial world, but also the sciences and the arts.

Scientific communities, for example, chug inexorably forward with discoveries, but this progress occurs by virtue of there being so many independently digging scientists in a community that eventually some scientists strike gold, even if sometimes only serendipitously. Whether entrepreneurial, scientific or artistic, communities can be creative even if a vast majority of their members fail to ever achieve something innovative. 

This is where multiple personalities change the game. Whereas individuals were traditionally members of just one community, and risky ventures such as entrepreneurship, science and the arts could get only one roll of the dice, in the age of Social Web 2.0 people can split themselves into multiple selves inhabiting multiple communities. Although too much splitting will dilute the attention that can be given to the distinct personalities and thereby lower the chance that at least one personality succeeds in its alotted realm, with a small number of personalities one may be able to increase the chances that at least one of the personalities succeeds. For example, with two personalities taking their respective shots within two distinct communities, the “owner” of those personalities may have raised the probability that at least one personality succeeds by nearly a factor two (although a factor greater than one is all one would need to justify splitting into two personalities).

With multiple personalities in hand, people can choose to take up creative endeavors they would not have been willing to enter into outside of social media because the risks of failure were too high. Multiple personalities can lower these risks.

One of the greatest underappreciated benefits of social media, then, may be that it brings a greater percentage of the world into creative enterprises they would not otherwise have considered.

This, I submit, is good.