Thinking About Links

It has actually been several months since I read
“Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means” (Albert-Laszlo Barabasi) but I keep coming back to it, scribbling in the margins, and finding it so insightful to thinking about links between people, places, and things on the net. It has everything to do with my oft pitched “Small Technologies Loosely Joined” ideas.

I learned much about mathematicians I had never heard of mathematicians such as Paul Erdõs and Alfréd Rénya, and how the Kevin Baconized notions of “6 degrees of separation” are not only not so new as Hollywood, but only a piece of the network thinking so elegantly laid out by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi.

Linked weaves some history of network theory with Barabosi’s own research group’s efforts at Notre Dame (he is a physicist), and is fascniating (a) because it used the internet itself to study netorks and found concepts that extend to a wide range of fields, and not just science, but social theory, how terrorist operate, economics, Hollywood actors. For more, get the book, or at least visit his web site.

The 30+ pages of URL heavy footnotes are a treat in their own.

The crux is the discovery of scale free networks, ones who are goverend by power laws rather than normal probability distributions.

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, we find that real networks are governed by two laws: growth and preferential attachment. Each network starts from a small nucleus and expands with the addition of new nodes. Then these new nodes, when deciding where to link, prefer the nodes that have more links. These laws represent a significant departure from earlier models, which assumed a fixed number of nodes that are randomly connected to each other. But are they sufficient to explain the hubs and power laws encountered in real networks?

It is these power law distributions of web sites and the recognition of the role of highly connected hubs which continue to resonate with me. The power law is seen as the son to be memed “Long Tail” effect (see the December 2004 Wired article) where, say looking a weblogs, a small number of highly popular blogs have a dominant majority of inbound links, these are the technorati, the people who’s blogs are most widely read. There is a rapid drop off in terms of more ordinary blogs, and this is where you and me sit way out on the long tail, and new bloggers are way out there with 1 reader (themselves) or maybe 2 (them plus Mom).

The point greatly highlighted in the Wired article is that there is a huge wealth of information and value in this long tail (yay!) The examples are pulled from Amazon and the online music industry, where Wired tries to make the case (some are arguing it, but being right is not the point), that there is a profitable and almost significant amount of business and activity out there in the long tail, where the numbers are not dominant of a best selling author or musician, but it offers an outlet to be heard and accessed by a respectable number of people. it means we all have our own niche on the internet, and taken as a sum of many, we count. It also means that the nature of blogging is not solely limited to what you write, or which software you use, or how elegant your sidebar and CSS is, but that you actively participate in other people’s blogs, that you become a hub yourself, and that a hub is made in incoming and outgoing flows of information.

You’ll see more mention of the “long tail” as it becomes recognized in more and more places. In fact, Chris Anderson, the author of the Long Tail books, is blogging his progress as he expands it into a book. He is thinking much about blogging:

If you’re like me, virtually all of your time is now spent between two inboxes: your email and your RSS feed (which I read with the excellent web-based Bloglines). Indeed, I’ve pretty much stopped using bookmarks altogether. If I do visit a site, it’s usually via a link in my feed and only then if I feel pretty sure the full text there will be worth the trip.

With the exception of specific tasks, such as search and transactions, the Web for me has mostly turned into another text-and-minimal-graphics stream that automatically delivers content of interest, differing from my email only in that it’s not personal and doesn’t require my response. In other words, the age of curiosity or routine-driven surfing may be ending. The future, once again, looks like Push.

That represents two big shifts. First, it’s a significant aesthetic retreat, from the pretty to the practical (following the Google model), and from the entire package to the single post. Second, it’s a behavioral change on the part of the readers:  in a subscription age, where publishers don’t have to entice you back each day with a flood of new content, quality trumps quantity. Once they’ve won you as a RSS subscriber, it requires an active decision on your part to unsubscribe. This puts a premium on the thoughtful post, now matter how infrequent, and discourages floods of random miniposts designed to drive return traffic.

Anyhow, if you are curious, passionate, interested, whatever about how the internet functions and behaves as a network (not the geeky protocals, but like an organism), pick up a copy of Linked.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


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