Seeing and Tuning Social Networks

June 4, 2002

Jon Udell

In response to last month's column, "Blogspace Under the Microscope," Jon Schull wrote to say that the article should instead have been entitled "Blogspace Under the Macroscope." Schull is a biological psychologist turned software entrepeneur. His company, SoftLock, provided the digital rights technology used for Stephen King's Riding the Bullet. Schull's Macroscope Manifesto says we need new instruments that will reveal biological and cultural patterns our senses cannot apprehend.

Most natural patterns are not easily perceived, for they do not happen to produce lasting stimuli to which our nervous systems are attuned. But everything we know about biology, epidemiology, social networks, computational algorithms, and data structures tells us that branching patterns are "out there," waiting to be mapped, illuminated, seen anew. In the last few decades, new data sources, new data-analytic tools, and new tracking techniques have become available to scientists and schoolchildren. It is now possible to envision a "macroscope" that presents these invisible but ubiquitous patterns to human perceptual systems so that they would engage our innate ability to perceive millions of leaves as scores of trees ... and a forest.

Another perspective came from Valdis Krebs, whose interests in math, programming, project management, and organizational dynamics led him to develop software for mapping social networks. In a paper entitled "Knowledge Networks -- Mapping and Measuring Knowledge Creation and Re-Use," Krebs writes:

An organization's data is found in its computer systems, but a company's intelligence is found in its biological and social systems. Computer networks must support the people networks in today's fluid and adaptive organizations -- not the other way around.

Using network mapping software, he helps organizations see and then adjust their social networks.

The growth of weblogs has created a wave of interest in social network analysis. At the Emerging Technologies Conference, Clay Shirky gave a wonderful talk on clustering and friendship patterns at LiveJournal. I've done a bit of my own social network analysis recently, looking not only for clusters of like-mindedness, but also and more importantly for Connectors (in Malcolm Gladwell's sense) who route ideas among different communities.

New forms of social software are one of the most hopeful green shoots erupting from a still-bleak technology landscape. "The excitement is coming back," wrote EDventure's Kevin Werbach. "Web services, Weblogs, and WiFi are the new WWW." Those who attended the Emerging Technologies Conference, and wirelessly blogged sessions on all three topics, would surely agree.

Since we don't want the new WWW to be another tulip craze, though, we owe it to ourselves to seek out diverse points of view. So I asked Jon Schull and Valdis Krebs to talk about weblogs, social networking, and economics.

A Conversation With Jon Schull

To Jon Schull, digital rights management looked like a variety of social networking. While studying learning in paramecia one summer, he got the idea to combine shareware with rights management and payment. The software would be copied from person to person, but not identically. Each generation would vary, so that the lineage of documents would create "a return path over which nutrients (that is, money) could flow." This would be an information economy modeled on agriculture, not manufacturing. "I was trying to fill the world with documents that would reproduce," he says, "and leave genetic trails." Visualization of these trails, he thought, would yield a new understanding of the economics (or infonomics) of data.

Some people did redistribute their copies as SoftLock hoped they would. But most did not, even though a message at the end of each locked preview implored them to do so:

Passing along a SoftLocked document is legal and encouraged so you can share Riding the Bullet with others.

Why didn't people pass copies along? "They thought it was wrong," says Schull. "Their normative beliefs were out of sync with the realities of law and self-interest." If copies had flowed freely, though, a different kind of belief conflict would have arisen. The technology that enabled SoftLock to grow a network of pass-along books, and receive payments for them, could also invade privacy. SoftLogic was careful to anonymize the data before creating lineage diagrams, but Schull still found the situation unsettling.

Privacy is, of course, a complex issue. Recent trends in blogspace suggest that our behavior changes much more rapidly than our beliefs. The backlink display I wrote about last time is one of the ways that bloggers willingly offer up what would normally be private data -- namely, referrals -- in the service of a collective effort. The RSS display I've described elsewhere is another example of the same thing. Nothing compels us to reveal these data. Our privacy beliefs tell us not to. And yet increasingly, we do. I think it's a rational choice. We intuit that there are patterns waiting to be discovered, and that such discoveries will be valuable.

How will we apprehend these patterns? Says Schull:

Go back to nature. Consider the perceptual arrays already proven to give us vast amounts of information subliminally. Visual textures, the shapes of trees and bushes, faces.

We're wired to respond to these natural biological stimuli. What's missing are the data, which we're becoming more eager to provide, and the macroscope that will bring the picture into focus.

A Conversation With Valdis Krebs

Given good pictures of social networks, what will we use them for? Valdis Krebs has lots of practical ideas. For example, consider Amazon's related-book feature. If you follow these links a few steps out, says Krebs, clusters emerge, and sometimes those clusters represent disjoint interests connected only through one book. He offers Thomas Petzinger's The New Pioneers as an example. It connected two different groups -- one reading books on business and strategy, the other reading books on complexity science and chaos theory. Now there are a number of books that broker that connection, but Petzinger's was one of the first popular books to do so, according to Krebs.

The general principle at work here, Krebs says, was articulated in Ron Burt's Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. It states that networks with "holes" -- that is, unbrokered connections -- present the most opportunity. A successful actor is one with ties to many points in the network who can uniquely fill one or more of those holes. To that end, Krebs -- who is writing a book on his experiences with social networks and business organizations -- plans to mine Amazon, map out the communities of interest relevant to his themes, and tune his presentation to optimally broker among them.

For Krebs, Metcalfe's Law (network value is N2, for N users) and Reed's Law (network value is 2N, for N groups) are great in theory, but of limited practical benefit:

The six-degrees small world is a fallacy. The small world is two or three steps. I, for example, am supposedly six steps from Madonna. But if I want a backstage pass, it's not going to happen. On the other hand, if I know you, and you know Madonna's manager, there's a chance it will. The practical limit is about three hops. After that, information, for the most part, doesn't travel. We can form 2N groups, but I can belong to only so many.

Krebs calls this effect the horizon of observability. The most effective organizations, he says, are the ones with the best reach -- that is, the richest interconnections within that horizon. He cites a project for IBM that studied fifteen client companies following major changes (mergers, downsizing, etc.), and scored them on how well they handled the change. The winners had two things in common: high reach, and emergent leaders (sometimes formal, sometimes not) who were plugging structural holes.

The result, Krebs says, can be quantitive support for the kinds of management decisions now made solely on intuitive judgment. Here's the scenario:

OK, Jon, you're working in marketing, and we've mapped out your personal network. You're fine within marketing, but you're not linked well enough to sales and engineering. We think that's important. Your professional development goal next year is to forge new connections with engineering and sales.

Today, some of this mapping can be done automatically, by watching the flow of email and documents, but much of it requires self-reported data on contacts that don't leave measurable trails. As social and computer networks converge, that will inevitably change. We'll see relationships more clearly and -- for better and worse -- more analytically.

Jon Schull:

This convergence is the big story of our era, maybe of our species. Networks themselves are the millenial manifestation of a new order of being. You have to wonder what the mitochondria thought as they were becoming incorporated into cells. Well, they were just along for the ride.

I suggest that you buckle your seat belt. It could be a wild ride.