Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Community Deconstruction

I am presently somewhat stressed out, so sorry for the silence. I'm kind of stuck in a phase of de- and reconstruction of some projects in the course of which I've covered my apartment with about a hundred piles of papers in the attempt to get some order into them - and my thoughts possibly. The only outcome however is, well, piles of paper distributed in my apartment. Meanwhile, Stefan is busy with his move, and it occurred to me I'm flying to California on the weekend for the SciFoo camp, having no clue what I'm supposed to do there.

Anyway, besides some other things I've been dealing with the conference organization. As you can see on our website, the schedule is slowly taking shape and looks more interesting every day.

As a PS to my weekend post Lost in Information where I wrote “I've diffused myself over a dozen social network sites and now wonder who I am.” I just came across an open letter by Cameron Neylon in which he asks the developers of tools that broadly fall into the category of social networking or collaborative tools for scientists to critically analyse the strengths and weaknesses of their sites, and pleads for some kind of collaboration. He is afraid, and I share this concern, that the overabundance of such offers may lead to “a situation where, because of a splitting up of the potential user community, none of these tools succeed.”

What are the chances however, I ask myself, that any such plea will have a large effect? After all, it's not about collaboration, it's about competition, right?

Something else related that crossed my mind the other day is how the decreasing diameter of our social networks has efficiently created a strong hierarchy within the network. If you think of information exchange between the nodes of the network as links, it is a directed graph. Clearly, as I had to realize when dealing with the conference invitations, people come in various sorts of VIPness and information usually doesn't go both ways. The most Important people are, easy to recognize, those whose email address you won't find online. If anything, you'll find a website referring you to a PR manager. Jokingly I said to my husband, I should name him as my PR manager, maybe that would help with my grant proposals.

Then there's the kind of people who are too important to answer emails. And then there's the kind of people who will constantly forget what you've already told them - a very lopsided information exchange indeed. It's not hard to figure how come. Where once we had a small-scale network with everybody having mostly local neighbors and some few longer connections, now everybody can reach everybody from everywhere. So who do people address their questions to, who do people send their insights to, hoping for reply? Well, if they can choose among the whole wide world, why would they chose the local people? No, they will go straight to the top. As a result, incoming information must have vastly increased for the better known people in whatever area, incoming information from within the community as well as from the public. Sure, there's always been fanpost and death threats by snail-mail, but the effort to write has decreased so much, there's a vast inflation of commentaries being sent around.

So then what happens? Well, as I can tell from myself, you'll reach the point at which it becomes simply impossible to reply to all the emails and comments and Facebook messages and you will have to find some simple and fast way to screen and sort them. This is as much an attempt for explanation as an apology on my behalf: please, please don't expect me to reply to your emails. It's not that I don't want to, I just can't do it. Let me put it like this: every node in this network has a maximum capacity of information output. If vastly more information comes in than can be processed, the in to out ratio will drop dramatically.

Unfortunately, this then raises the problem of how to decide what to keep and what to toss. And I am afraid the order goes as follows: People you know personally first. People who are considered equally important second. Then declining order of importance. One could call that a manifestation of hierarchy. On the very top you'll find those people whose personal email addresses you only get, hesitantly, via some connection. And then there's the struggle of people trying to appear important, the biggest hurdle to which are obscure email addresses.

(Btw one side effect of this is also that those somewhere in the middle get approached from those even more weakly connected to the higher levels. So here's another remark on my behalf: I would rather cut off my tongue than passing on your email to any of my colleagues, increasing your chances of being read. So, just forget about it.)

This might turn out to be a very bad trend that eventually, ironically, will act against the idea of a well connected world and getting science closer to the public (and against a flat hierarchy in our community), simply because information exchange to and from every node has natural limits and thus becomes directed.

Just some random thoughts...


  1. Social networking is an immune system. To succeed it is broad with low amplitude but spikes when challenged. It can be overwhelmed, then exogenous antibiotic or death.

    Strong input buffering renders you a manager, Howard Hughes, or a presidential candidate: Power isolated from relevant information.

    Establishing yourself requires climbing a mountain of (metaphoric) corpses, then Babylon comes to you. Be pleasantly, efficiently, profitably evil. Also, get some file cabinets or invent a parallel-searchable alternative.

  2. Hi Uncle,

    Interestingly enough, I too have compared social networks to biological networks, but I don't think the analogy to the immune system is very appropriate. Reason is the human response system to bodily threats manages to notice local problems through various sophisticated messenger systems and then deals with them locally, whereas social network have to be triggered by threshold crossing, and then spread hypes through the whole network (or within some diameter of the source, much like outbreaks), while they can remain completely unnoticed elsewhere. Social networks typically have no central 'brain' that filters input and organizes information flow. This is an interesting problem btw because this non-targeted processing and distribution of information is incredibly inefficient. Nature, it remains to say, has done much better than we. Best,


  3. Dear Bee,

    I've covered my apartment with about a hundred piles of papers

    that's a funny coincidence in numbers - the new appartment is covered by about a hundered moving boxes. But they may be easier to "digest" than piles of paper.. Anyway, I should perhaps take some pictures of that chaos ;-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  4. Become rich and famous enough or important enough to have a secretary and staff!

  5. First thing: competition. Alas, humans.

    Second: information excess. This can be handled in two, complimentary ways - create less (you know, be fuckin kung fu), and discourage trivial information production. Boundary conditions are crucial.

  6. What is lacking is the ability, for "important people" in the science business, to use groupies in an efficient way. A VIP could arrange a circle of non-intimate but fanatic followers to keep her correspondence, answer it, even paste the occasional lipstick kiss in the envelope.

  7. "I would rather cut off my tongue than passing on your email to any of my colleagues"

    Ouch! I would definitely prefer to pass the email:-)


  8. Hi Giotis,

    Well, I'm not very talkative anyhow ;-)


  9. Hey Alejandro,

    Haven't heard from you in a while, how is it going? You are of course right, we should have fanclubs for the prominent VIPs, I'm all in favor of that. At the very least a Facebook page would do, then everybody can post whatever nonsense at 'The Wall' and occasionally poke Dr. X, or throw a turkey at Prof. Y. Sounds like the way to go! Best,


  10. Hi Bellamy,

    I'm totally with you. Just one question: how on earth do we discourage trivial information production (or often: reproduction) if that's basically what the internet presently seems to be all about? Best,


  11. There is cellular and humoral immune response. Titrating with Vitamin C makes a nasty cold brief. White blood cells burn ascorbate to make reactive oxyen species to attack invaders. After a few days antibodies rev up and clean house. You'll get well either way, but minimizing early damage and pathogen load is good.

    Same for public interaction. Eventually your lawyers will go after the bounders. Early on aim your high velocity semijacketed hollow points mid-chest and nipple high, then fire. Two exceptions: #4 buck shotshells aimed just below the short ribs; poisonous old ladies should be rerouted. (My mother did collections for six months. Everybody paid up. She gave a toad warts at 30 paces separation.)

  12. There must be technological solutions to this problem. Google is not the last word on connecting information supply to information demand. Some entrepreneur is going to find a way to make it easier for everyone to have access to and an ability to sort through vast amounts of information. Social networks and their directed hierarchies are just the best way of sorting information that we've come up with so far.

    I'm very curious to hear your impressions of the people you meet from Google.

  13. In response to the comments on the relationship between biology and the internet... the body has several feedback systems that work over successively longer cycles to deal with both high and low frequency events. The immune system is on the slow side of that spectrum. I think the internet is on the fast side. Political networks (like the emergence of national or ethnic consciousness) are more like the immune system.

  14. back @ Bee: ah, well, being terse is a way. Being cryptic is another. Combining them of course can be quite effective. Saying nothing often stalls people.

    Truly, this ultimately brings up the dilemma of: what degree of social interaction do [I] need to feel comfortable?

    A better question is: What is balance?


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