Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A distinguishing feature of human networks

OK, so the real distinguishing feature is that humans are involved. Duh. But I had a particular feature in mind ...

In the example of the spread of contract bridge, I guessed that a critical event, then as now, would be a well-known authority publicly endorsing a new idea. Well-known authorities are by definition connected to a large portion of the general population, because large numbers of people read/watch/listen to their pronouncements. This is a classic "small world" feature, which keeps the overall diameter of the graph (the maximum number of "degrees of separation" between any two members) small.

In a network like the internet, there are also a relative few "hubs" that are connected to a large number of more peripheral nodes. These tend to have monstrous bandwidth available and will carry huge amounts of traffic, both in and out. When I publish this post, for example, it will almost certainly pass through one or more of a relatively small number of "backbone" servers along with a mass of completely unrelated information.

In the human case, the well-known authority produces human-sized traffic, just like everyone else. It's just that this information gets broadcast, verbatim, to a large number of people. Similarly, anyone can try to send a message to the authority, but only a human-sized portion of it will actually get through. In practice, the authority's input will be heavily biased toward a small number of trusted people (who thus may be influential without being well-known), with maybe occasional input from random people.

I'm not sure what all the consequences of this may be, though I've been grasping at them a recent post or two. One way to look at it is that in a human network everyone's CPU and network are more or less the same size, while in a computer network they can vary by orders of magnitude. This in turn affects scalability.

Nor is it at all clear (to me, working off the top of my head here) that throwing more people at the problem would work, even if they'd sign up for it. Even if I decided to have ten or a hundred or a thousand people act together as a virtual hub, there's a limit to how fast they can talk to each other.

Hmm ... to what extent does something like Wikipedia act as a virtual hub?

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