A great is being written right now about social networks, specifically around the idea of what people are referring to as social graphs, a term LiveJournal creator Brad Fitzpatrick came up with. You can find a great backgrounder here: Social Graph: Concepts and Issues
I must confess this era of connections really animates me. From my vantage point, there is a blurring of the lines between the "real world" and the digital world (be it cell phone, email, the web or social networks), a sense of energy and vitality around the edges, a journey that reminds me of a favorite quote from E.L. Doctorow: It is like driving at night - you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
There is a thread in this that just fascinates me - what sociologists have called "objects of sociality". A wonderful blogger Joshua Porter captures this in a recent post:
Our lifelong friends exist in relation to the things we’ve done together: the places we’ve gone to, the words we’ve spoken, and the movies we’ve seen. It doesn’t make sense to talk about our friends without these mediating objects
Porter points to Jyri Engeström, who carries this concept a bit further:
The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, their developers intuitively 'get' the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On del.icio.us the objects are the URLs. EVDB, Upcoming.org, and evnt focus on events as objects.
When I look at the objects that connect me with the folks on my social graph, I am amazed by the breadth and variety of objects - some huge life milestones, some random affinities for artists, some geographic. These insights track with my own experience - not only with online networks, but also in the offline networks that I am a part of.
I rolled this around in my head for the last day, after a friend forwarded a sensational GoogleTalk from Santa Fe Institute President Geoff West entitled Scaling Laws In Biology And Other Complex Systems. I realize this can be uber-science geeky at times, but the insights for objects (ideas, networks, campaigns) as they grapple with scaling seems really useful for me. Here's a distillation:
West, Brown and Enquist wrestled with the idea that the scaling laws may be related to the structure and hydrodynamics of the networks that supply nutrients to the cells in an animal's body. After a year of intense activity, the trio discovered that scaling results from the fractal-like structure of the network. They came up with three fiendishly simple universal postulates, grounded in the principle of natural selection, from which the scaling laws can be deduced mathematically.
The first of these was that the network fills the whole of an organism's body.
The second was that the diameter of the smallest branches in the network does not vary from one species to another since cell size is about the same in all species.
And the third was that fluid flows throughout the network with minimum energy loss.
As I biked over the newly renamed Ann Richards bridge this morning, trying to connect these dots, reflecting on my own graphs in the offline & online arenas, the first observation of West - that the network fills the whole of an organism's body - threaded with the Ubuntu worldview that many in Sub-Saharan Africa talk about - a sense that "a person is a person
because of others".
These objects, these nodes, these networks - they are as much a definition of me as my height, my weight, my genetic make-up. This can not be managed or even predicted - the fractal nature of life seems to be hard-wired into our very essence.