Ming the Mechanic:
Laws of social networks

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Laws of social networks2008-07-06 23:20
by Flemming Funch

There are a few "laws" that typically are brought up when one discusses networks, particularly online social networks. They show a progression of different kinds of networks. They're not rules and they're not natural laws, but they're an abstraction of observations smart people have made about different types of networks.

First there's Sarnoff's Law. David Sarnoff was a big name in radio broadcasting. Around 1930 he formulated a law that said, essentially:

The value of a network is proportional to the number of members

He was talking about a broadcast network. Meaning a one-way emission of some program to a number of listeners or viewers. Sure, twice as many listeners is twice as good, if we're thinking about influence, advertising dollars, etc.

Then we move on to a different kind of network where each node potentially might talk with any other node. Here is Metcalfe's Law:

The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users of the system

Here were talking about a telecom network. Think about a phone network. Anybody with a phone can call anybody else with a phone. So, the number of possible connections is much higher. It is the square of the number of nodes. Robert Metcalfe who formulated this law around 1970 was the inventor of the ethernet protocol for computer networks, and this applies to networks between computer users as well as it applies to telephones.

But we can do better than that. Computer users can not just make calls or send e-mails. With proper software like forums and social networking sites, they can also get together and form groups. The number of theoretically possible groups is much higher than the number of connections between individuals. So, here comes Reed's Law:

The utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.

This was formulated in 1999 by David Reed. This obviously applies to the Internet.

So, we went from a potential value proportional to number of members in a broadcast network, to the square of the number of members in a telecom type network, to roughly 2 to the n'th power, in a group-forming network, where n is the number of members.

This is all rather abstract and theoretical. We're only talking about potential maximum value, a potential which will never be met. In a phone network, most of the nodes wouldn't have the slightest interest in calling up the majority of the rest of the nodes. And on the Internet, most people would never want to participate in anything remotely like the number of groups that could be formed, as they wouldn't possibly have time, and their number of interests has not grown exponentially.

I'd rather go in a somewhat different direction and formulate a law that both is more correct and just as useless.

The value of a network is proportional to its complexity

See, the real value doesn't really depend very directly on the number of nodes. Sure, the Internet is potentially more valuable if we add a lot of people to it, but in reality only if there's a meaningful way for you to have a direct or indirect relationship to them, or to draw value from what they're doing. But it is not the number that does it, it is the type of web that is woven.

I'm talking about complexity in the sense of systemic properties where the parts somehow are inter-related in a way where the sum becomes more than just the total of the parts.

Those types of networks above are special cases of this. A broadcast network is very simple and doesn't have much complexity. However, the real value of such a network doesn't really depend on just the number of viewers, as it depends on who they are and what the network is broadcasting. One network might easily be more valuable than another with the same number of members.

The value of a telecom network isn't really n squared. It depends on which relationships people have outside the network. The more complex the relationships, and the more complex relationships the network facilitates, the more valuable it is.

Everybody on the net aren't going to form groups with everybody else, so, again, the real value depends on the complexity of the relationships that it is meaningful to maintain. Something might increase it, but it isn't the number of members itself that is going to increase it.

It is an easy claim to make, that the value of a network is proportional to its complexity, because complexity is badly defined and there's no way of measuring it. That doesn't make it less true.

What increases the value is increased complexity in the sense that more intricate webs are woven in a way that is useful.

Think about a brain. Neurons are connected with other neurons in a very complex way that creates a system ready to respond in useful ways to a great number of different situations. It isn't the number of neurons that's key, but the multitude of ways they're become connected, based on a multitude of learning experiences. Signals propagate and ripple across the network, useful responses emerge, and the system keeps learning and evolving.

It isn't very valuable or useful to connect random people with other random people in random constellations. What is useful is that relationships form, based on shared interests or experiences, and that one is able to indirectly draw on the connections and knowledge of other people, through several steps.

If you're in a social network, you've somehow become connected with people that you have something in common with. You've also connected yourself with resources that are useful to you, which have been created by people you probably don't know. These people and those resources are again connected with networks of people that again are connected with other people and other resources. If there's something you want to do, or something you want to know, there's an intricate web of connectedness available to you. Maybe what you're looking for isn't available from what you're directly connected to, but it might materialize from what you indirectly are connected to. You're connected with a complex network and exactly what is available is in no way obvious. But the value of it increases the more developed this network is, the more meaningful connections have been developed, the more those different resources are lined up, ready to go. Which is the complexity.

The complexity can be increased. How to do so isn't generally clear or understood. How can one weave more useful, far-reaching connections, without merely making it all more complicated and confusing? There's no easy answer, but there are certain indicators. What you're looking for is the tools that appear to make things more simple, while actually connecting you with more stuff. Does it get things together for you, or does it fragment things for you? Is the network becoming smarter, or more confused? Are you seeing synergy emerging, or the opposite?

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7 Jul 2008 @ 05:55 by FreedomBuilder @ : Just wondering....
What are you answers to your questions with regard to NCN?

And with regard to the broader network, or "community", of CyberSpace in general?


7 Jul 2008 @ 08:49 by jenny orr @ : social networks
Social networks do open up new possibilities for connection with more peope than would otherwise be possible, and able people to link up with people of similar interests but what is the value of these connections?

I try to uncover ths in my blog but any thoughts would be welcome. Come comment at http://facevaluebook.blogspot.com/2008_07_03_archive.html  

7 Jul 2008 @ 13:17 by ming : NCN
James, NCN creates some value for sure, but it could be done a lot better. Cyberspace in general creates lots of useful connections and new ways of connecting things together are appearing every day. But it is also very fragmented and we're fulfilling but a very small percentage of what we could do. Particularly in terms of how large groups of people might work together. You're exposed to so many things you can do something with, but there's not much there to build structures of cooperation with. Mostly there are zillions of ways of leaving little messages for others, which is good, but I'm looking for how that creates an intelligence of a higher order. Maybe and hopefully it is already happening, and I just don't quite see it. But certainly there's room for inventing some better wiring.  

7 Jul 2008 @ 18:32 by FreedomBuilder @ : Intelligence of a Higher Order
Firstly, in your main article, you mention a "network" as having the property of "smarter" or "confused". I may be way off, but ascribing a volitionally acting consciousness to *essentially* a static network is misplaced. Isn't the thinking, the smartness or confusion, the acting itself only ever actually done by me and you as volitional conscious individuals?

Can not the complexity of a network be increased simply by adding to the network? Adding as in participating and contributing to it. Searching, identifying then developing relationships with other "resources" within it?

It seems to me that by fully participating in the network (community), by adding yourself to it, you make it more complex, no?

It also seems to me that, without necessarily understanding why, or even how!, we, that is humanity, continues to grope toward a fully {link:http://futurepositive.synearth.net/stories/storyReader$333|synergic future}.

So what better wiring are you currently working on inventing Flemming, for either NCN or the Internet at large?  

7 Jul 2008 @ 21:56 by ming : Collective Intelligence
I'm not sure any of us knows much about what collective intelligence really would look like on a wider scale. I mean, a global brain, that's a nice vision, but do we expect that the Internet suddenly becomes self-aware and from then we each are just are neurons in its brain? Probably not. It is more about synergy, that the sum is more than its parts, that there's something we somehow can do together that is more than the sum of what we could do individually. It is us individually who's taking action, but the overall result might be something more and better than what any of us easily could predict.

Simply adding to a network, participating, contributing is adding value. But I suppose I'm groping for something more than that. There's some kind of alignment of a higher order that I sort of would expect. Maybe that takes place just by each individual doing their thing, but I'm not entirely convinced.

We can observe good examples, like "dumb" individual ants that do just a few simple things without having any awareness of the whole ant hill, but still managing to together do things that are pretty intelligent and ordered. Are we already like ants, each doing our own little thing, and together accomplishing something bigger? To some degree. I just seem to think there are some things missing, and I don't know if that's because I'm just an ant who doesn't get the whole picture, or because there still is some important ingredient we need to discover.

Certainly, it isn't enough to just connect a lot of stuff and a lot of people together. There's some kind of intelligence in the self-organization that takes place, but self-organization in itself is no guarantee that it will work well enough.

I see it as some kind of race between a bottom-up freely self-organizing P2P kind of network on one side, and either chaos or top-down control and manipulation on the other. I'd like to make sure the odds are stacked in favor of the self-organized collective intelligence.

I wish I had a master plan. I do have some ideas about patterns for productive cooperation, but more about that at a later time.  

9 Jul 2008 @ 20:41 by swanny @ : Master Plan
july 9 2008

Ho Ming
glad to see youre still in good form.
Master Plan?
well came across some stuff
Not sure its network related Might require translation to network status
but stuff like The Universe Story or The Great Work or other such By thomas
berry and others
evolutionary theology "the green bible" is I find interesting. It presents a kind of
scientific mythology. Im not sure it can get much more detailed than that
and will always require a kind of Faith in some modicum of Faith or myth.
The earth or more precisely humanity thus would require a "global refounding"
on a greener or ??? something basis to acknowledge the "green imperative"
in the global and human wholistic puzzle... James Lovelock sees it in his
GAIA theory although... its just another name for the sacred rose...
best I could do on long notice
sorry no silver bullet here but thats perhaps the essence of faith
or "green faith"... define Faith? hmmmmm tough cookie

networks and faith?


oh well

well hope I have tainted the topic to much.


10 Jul 2008 @ 23:24 by swanny @ : UN Global Compact
july 10 2008

Global Government or World Federation
vs Global Governance
they make an interesting distinction here between these
World Domination vs Global Governance
The current state of affairs seems to be reflected in the UN
Global Compact link = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UN_Global_Compact

I shall have to investigate further...

World Government would seem to suggest a pyramid top down
chain of command structure
where as a Global Governance model is more of a network scheme.


14 Jul 2008 @ 04:18 by swanny @ : DNS Issue
july 13 2008

Sensitive info ????

whoa not sure where to put this one
bit of a hot potato alright
well its a bit geekish I suppose
lot of people with the egg on the face
apparently with this one thought there a possible dns poisoning or spoofing
bug well not possible if you believe the inventor of
dns to have said to put the patch on before now...

kaminsky ring a bell? or birthday attack...
well I think the doo doo has hit the fan a bit here

so heads up and buckets ready...

if youre running dns servers theres a patch with your name on it

or ?

possibilities aye....

oh an ming theres an interesting social benefit program you may want to use for
your verification purposes called recaptcha

but well this is all probably old news already
but the Kaminsky attack is scheduled for aug 6 2008 at the black hat talk

you may just want to hold of on credit purchases for a bit


16 Jul 2008 @ 03:50 by swanny @ : Scalability 2
interesting a ditto
comment seems to fit both of your last 2 topics ming
weird and sorry for the duplication but I have no edit capacity here


july 15 2008

wow good stuff people
I was intitially going to add that this could be somewhat facilitated and implemented by the creation and implementation of network or internet Standards yet standards though good are problematic in that
they tend to freeze or limit as well as standardize and benchmark and staticness is not
the reality of life and freedom and the paradox of complexity.
So off I went looking for a compromise and well found a theory but no real
concrete example. A book on Internet architecture talks about a scaleable internet arch but not just upwardly scaleable but both ways.... excellent I thought
but how ever could that be designed and implemented and then managed and or governed. Although I can sort of see it in my minds eye and it would seem to be a real kind of living thing seemingly scary yet somehow wonderous at the same time. the adaptive internet.

all well perhaps
just another part of the "new game" perhaps.


29 Jan 2010 @ 15:30 by Широкоформатная печать @ : Master Plan
We can observe good examples, like "dumb" individual ants that do just a few simple things without having any awareness of the whole ant hill, but still managing to together do things that are pretty intelligent and ordered. Are we already like ants, each doing our own little thing, and together accomplishing something bigger? To some degree. I just seem to think there are some things missing, and I don't know if that's because I'm just an ant who doesn't get the whole picture, or because there still is some important ingredient we need to discover.  

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Other stories in
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2010-07-08 02:27: Truth: superconductivity for scalable networks
2010-06-27 02:28: Be afraid, be very afraid
2008-06-20 15:40: Peer material production
2008-05-06 13:57: Why can't we stick to our goals?
2008-02-21 21:16: Open social networks
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2007-11-07 00:51: Diversity counterproductive to social capital?
2007-07-13 23:42: Plan vs Reality
2007-07-12 22:53: Emergence and democracy

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