Enter the matrix


Let’s face it: Six-degrees-of-separation theory is now one of the dominant intellectual trends of our age. As I pointed out in a recent posting, we are now awash in applications that seek to track the social threads that tie us together. We’ve got Friendster, Eurekster, Feedster,, Orkut. And the king of them all is, of course, Google — an engine that ranks sites based on their popularity, measured in terms of how many links point to them.

It’s easy to see why social-network theory ports nicely to the Web. When you use Friendster, the interface feels very organic; clicking through to see your friends’ friends, and your friends’ friends’ friends, neatly embodies the nature of social links. Indeed, HTML hypertext is the perfect medium with which to explore this stuff. A hyperlink is both a metaphor and a metonym; in the online world, it not only represents the link between people — it is the link between people.

But for decades, network theorists did not have the Web as a visualization tool. So they were forced to figure out incredibly obtuse ways of illustrating the maddeningly complex relations between people. Carnegie Mellon’s Journal of Social Structure has an incredibly cool essay about this, and it includes pictures of some of these devices. Some were crazy 3D peg-and-bolt apparatuses; others were “sociogram boards” that look like Chinese Checker devices. And there were tons of connect-the-dots diagrams that tried to draw tiny lines showing who knew who and how. That picture I’ve excerpted above is from a sociogrammatic visualization of first grade class.

I particularly love that classroom drawing, because it reminds me of the oddly peurile edge to this theory. Because the funny thing about social-network theory is it is, at heart, high-school logic. Why’s that guy popular? Er … because he’s popular. Or, ah, his popularity is result of his, um, popularity. Such is the brutal logic of the power law, which rewards those who’ve already been rewarded, leaving the rest in the dust. Economists like Robert Frank have been understandably concerned at the ways in which power laws in social networks are inherently unfair. He’s written a couple of books noting how social-network dynamics have created much of the dizzying gap between the rich and the lower classes.

But the funny thing is, this sort of nuanced critique is quite hard to find amongst digital folks. The digerati who are most fascinated by social-network theory tend to be those who are — whaddya know — really hugely popular themselves. The pundits who continually obsess over the magic of social networks are the ones who have been enormously rewarded by them, which makes them, in a way, utterly unable to see the huge social problems that are created by network dynamics. Christ, it’s like asking a bunch of popular cheerleaders to determine whether high school is pleasant, fun, and a socially egalitarian place. (It’s also like asking the rich whether they think the marketplace is mostly fair and “rewards merit”. What the hell else are they going to say?)

This not to dismiss the actual value of network theory. I think it’s both demonstrably true and incredibly valuable in understanding how the world works! But these days, it’s coming alarmingly close to being a new form of social darwinism: If you’re popular and well rewarded, it’s because of incontrovertible forces that are beyond everyone’s control — and if you’re not, ditto. The world is fine just as it is!

Anyway, I think that’s why that image above so cracked me up. Those hilariously smug little expressions on the kids’ faces are a nice gloss on the super-weird politics of our networked age.

(Thanks to Abstract Dynamics for finding that study!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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