Pulling the scales from our whys

Noah Brier has an interesting post titled Metcalfe’s Plateau, which he describes as –

a place where the value of the network no longer increases with each additional node. In fact, thanks to spam (as deemed by me), the value of the network had started to decline, I was looking for other places to spend my time online.

In it he cites a variety of sourses, including quotage from Bob Metcalfe, Paul Saffo and Clay Shirky’s A Group is its Own Worst Enemy. Here’s that excerpt:

You have to find a way to spare the group from scale. Scale alone kills conversations, because conversations require dense two-way conversations. In conversational contexts, Metcalfe’s law is a drag. The fact that the amount of two-way connections you have to support goes up with the square of the users means that the density of conversation falls off very fast as the system scales even a little bit. You have to have some way to let users hang onto the less is more pattern, in order to keep associated with one another.

Good stuff. I responded with a comment that is currently in moderation, while Noah (we hope) figures out it’s not spam. (And he’s right: having to do that is a big value-subtract.) Meanwhile, I thought I’d go ahead and post my comment here. It goes –

Metcalfe is right about networks, while Clay and Paul are right about groups.
I submit that groups are also different than “social networks,” a term that used to be synonymous with groups but now means two things: personally collected associations, also called “social graphs,” and online habitats such as Linkedin and Facebook. Both of the latter prove Clay’s point.
For what it’s worth, Linkedin has no conversation density for me because I do no conversation there. It’s just a CV viewer, and it’s good enough at that. Facebook also has no conversation density for me because keeping up with it takes too much work. This might be my fault, for somehow allowing myself to have 396 “friends,” when the number of my actual friends is far lower than that — and most of them aren’t on Facebook. Add “2 friend suggestions, 187 friend requests, 2 event invitations, 1 u-netted nations invitation, 1 blog ownership request, 180 other requests” and “23 new notifications” … plus more “pokes” than I’ll bother to count, and Facebook compounds what it already is: a gridlock of obligations in an environment architected, blatantly, to drag my eyeballs across advertising, most of which is irrelevant beyond the verge of absurdity. (On my entry page is an ad for dresses by American Apparel. It replaces one for singles. I’m male and married. You’d think Facebook could at least get *that* much right.)
The only way we can immunize ourselves from overly “scaled” services — or improve them in ways that are useful for us and not just their clueproof “business models” — is by equipping ourselves as individuals with tools by which each of us controls our ends of relationships. That means we assert rules of engagement, terms of service, preferences, additional service requests and the rest of it. This is what we are working on with ProjectVRM.
While it’s hard to imagine a world where a free market is not “your choice of silo” or “your choice of walled garden”, imagining one is necessary if we wish to fulfill the original promise of the Net and the Web.

And with that I’m outa here. Should be landing at Logan around midnight, and in Cambridge for most of the rest of the month.

10 comments

  1. Crosbie Fitch’s avatar

    Instead of a private walled garden into which members of the public are occasionally admitted where they may pay for a limited period to experience what it might be like to own such a garden and play without constraint, how about an unwalled public park of infinite size where all members of the public are free to come and go and do what they will, subject to the proviso that they play fair and don’t attempt to enclose anything. Into this park expensive works of art may sometimes be deposited, whose production has been arranged and paid for by voluntary public subscription (or on some occasions, philanthropic individuals or corporations).

    Such an unwalled park would be comparable to how the GPL license operates today, or what the entire world will look like once the unethical privileges of copyright and patent have been abolished and everyone’s intellectual property rights have been restored.

  2. Don Marti’s avatar

    Looks like the bottom feeder advertisers that Google drove away are fleeing to Facebook. I checked in on my Facebook account and it’s all dumbass “express your opinion on gas prices” and “lose weight with green tea” — these things bring in orders of magnitude less than well-placed search ads.

  3. Trackback from thingamy on July 8, 2008 at 3:39 am

  4. Bob Metcalfe’s avatar

    Metcalfe’s Law (V ~ N^2) has been begging for revision since the 1980s. Alas, the best its critiques have thought of so far is slowing its ascent (V ~ N*Log(N)). Time to add some terms that turn it flat or even down after some point, as above. And to find some data to fit the formulas.

    See Metcalfe’s Law Recurses Down the Long Tail of Social Networks:

    http://vcmike.wordpress.com/2006/08/18/metcalfe-social-networks

    /Bob Metcalfe

  5. Marc Canter’s avatar

    Just oien thing to add here – quality over quantity

    the only reason the social network vendors do what they do – is to capture more eyeballs to make more money. Trust me – they don’t give a shit about conversations.

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