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 @ 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 @ 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.  

21 Feb 2016 @ 09:26 by Jimbo @ : ZwIsRWEAmEWZDirzQppF

11 Mar 2016 @ 05:57 by Koyie @ : WJZOnpEnTZJlEuWozCZd

Other stories in
2010-07-10 13:01: Strong Elastic Links
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
2007-11-08 01:49: The value of connections
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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