Aspen 140: The Open Ideas Project

 The Aspen Institute holds its annual Ideas Festival each summer. This year the festival was held from June 29 though July 5. The 2009 Festival theme was, “Ideas That Work,” and had four tracks: World Affairs and the Global Economy; Arts and Culture; Life in America; and Managing Planet Earth.

The Festival gathers recognizable leaders, thinkers and doers at the Institute to share their ideas. Traditional media outlets typically provide limited coverage of the Festival. This year my favorite magazine, The Atlantic, is running a special ideas report and recently the Festival started sharing ideas through a video library.

This year there’s a twist. Because sharing ideas widely is as important as being at the Festival, the Institute is extending its reach by recruiting at least 140 attendees to share ideas from the Festival through Twitter. (The number 140 is relevant because Twitter updates are limited to no more than 140 characters.)

You can track and share open ideas from the Festival by searching Twitter, using the search term #AIF09. This search string is called a “hashtag,” denoted by the pound sign at the beginning. Prior to the Festival, organizers established this hashtag to give everyone a common reference point to track updates from the Festival on Twitter.

There are other ways to track ideas from the Festival too. Because of Twitter’s 140 character limit, users abbreviate the ideas they share as memes. The term meme was first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 best seller the Selfish Gene. Memes are units of cultural information with specific meaning that are replicated throughout a culture. Memes can be abbreviations or terms whose interpretation requires tacit knowledge.

“Chimerica” is a good example of a meme used at the Festival. Chimerica was coined by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson to describe “China’s strategy of dollar reserve accumulation that has financed America’s debt habit.” By simply searching Twitter on Chimerica, you’ll find Tweets from all the attendees that used that meme in a Tweet.

Twist provides a graphical view of Tweets containing a meme. Enter Chimerica in Twist and you will see a time series plot of Chimerica Tweets. Twist also displays the Chimerica Tweets in a list below the plot. Mouse over the plot and select a specific point in time to browse the Tweets.

Tweets are an excellent way to share ideas. Whether through hashtags established as a convention or by plotting the time series of memes, you can be part of the Aspen 140: Open Ideas Project.