Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Authority, 150 connections, and the Power Law

---150 Connections: The difference between a Community and an Audience---

I found myself in a conversation with friend and sometimes mentor, Nathan Hughes (@ndh313), about the upper bound of one's social connections. Back in the 90's Robin Dunbar proposed an upper limit of around 150 real social connections (knowing who a person is and what their relationship is to you). Scientists have recently used Twitter as a laboratory to confirm that this number holds true, even with all the recent advances in social networking technology. This number has also been confirmed by actual practice throughout the range of human experiences, from hunter-gatherer societies to corporate organizations, to the U.S. military.

In our new social media landscape, this limit seems to manifest itself in two interesting effects:

Most of you have probably already observed the first effect, and it is unlikely to surprise you: those of us who follow hundreds or thousands on Twitter or Facebook will ignore most of the traffic in favor of our "core community" of around, surprise, 150 people--the people we have built real social ties with. This is well-understood enough that Facebook tries to predict this core community based on conversations, and filter the newsfeed appropriately.

Second, the rest of our connections (the ones we don't maintain more structured formal ties with) fall out of the conversation paradigm, and become an audience. To a small number of people, we're a member of their community; to everyone else, we are (however transitory) set up as some sort of Authority. Broadcast mechanics take over, and the conversation becomes one-way, because of the limits of human attention, and not the limits of the social media tools we use. When a social network extends our reach as an individual beyond our core communities, it does so in such a way as to set us up as an author(ity), not a conversant. There doesn't seem to be a way around this issue. It's how humans are hard-wired. This almost seems counterintuitive to those of us who've grown up digital, because we see traditional authority structures being challenged everywhere from academics, to the music industry, to the media ("the" media, hah!).

---Author(ity)---

The Internet generation isn't getting rid of "experts", we're just changing the criteria.

Who is to be considered an "expert" on a topic is quickly becoming an ad-hoc, crowdsourced meritocracy. The technology of the 20th century set up firm barriers between community and authority (you were either on TV, or not; a published author, or not). Social media tools have greatly softened that barrier, to the point where many of us can drift in or out of authority, or remain a member of one community, and an authority to another. However, in a web-linked world, contrary to our instincts, Authority is still inherent in the system. That authority is granted by our core communities, however, and not (solely) by some sanctioned social institution. This is the difference between "PhD. X on television said...", and "My friend and sometimes mentor said...". As we each act in our own communities as gates between the communities of others, we lend credence and authority to those voices, sometimes diminishing the authority of traditional incumbent institutions in the process. (More on the social graph as gatekeeper here).

---The Power Law---

The interesting effect of this is as statistically demonstrable as the 150-connections rule. It establishes a power-law relationship inside of networks. Clay Shirky noticed this effect as far back as 2003.  For an evenly-distributed bunch of egalitarians, look how often we all quote Clay Shirky! To most of us, he is an "Authority", not a member of our community (more's the pity). Meritous or compelling memes gather an audience because members of various communities lend the meme (or author) credence. As reputation grows across communities, some people get propelled out of the long-tail and into the big-head of the power-law curve and a wider audience. It's at this point that their social networking relationships change: The conversant becomes an author, and they have to address an audience instead of a just a community.

I've noticed this most frequently when listening to Leo Laporte's This Week in Google podcast with Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis. Conversations frequently center around various tools and services that are coming online in the social sphere, and I find how often my own likes/dislikes are at odds with the hosts. This is, of course, because I am using these tools to interact with a community, not to manage an audience. Therefore, our criteria for evaluating the usefulness of these tools is fundamentally different. Things that they find terribly useful tend towards those features that make managing an audience easier: Google's Priority Inbox, Twitter, Gina Trapani's own ThinkUp app, etc. We're using all the same tools, but they're using them from the big head of the power law distribution graph, and I from the long tail. I believe this is the reason why a service like Twitter caught on amongst the media traditionalists more than other social technologies: it's natively a broadcast media, and pretty bad at conversations. Which is exactly what media traditionalists are used to.

---Crossing the Gap---

Thanks to social technologies, it's easier than ever to cross the gap from community/member to audience/author. But the most successful social technologies (let's say Facebook and Twitter) succeeded because they were flexible enough to change when their users were faced with the 150-connection barrier. Facebook iterated through many changes, but the most important to managing the crossing were the "Top News" feed, which filters the user's news feed heuristically based on the most common connections, and the creation of "Fan Pages" that center around managing an audience more than participating in a community. Twitter stumbled onto success largely by having a well-documented and widely-used API that allowed the userbase to extend it's functionality to fit their needs on their own. Hashtags and Retweets are both user-created conventions that help bridge the community/audience gap, and were eventually incorporated into Twitter's core functionality. And almost nobody uses Twitter via SMS anymore, as it was originally intended. Google Buzz is an excellent example of how being able to cross the 150-connection barrier can make or break a service. Even though Google had a ready userbase via GMail, and far superior technology for cross-platform integration, it was the inability to service the big head of the power law distribution graph, without destroying the usefulness to the long tail, that held it back. Following even a few popular feeds in Buzz can bury your closer connections, short-circuiting Buzz's usefulness to core communities, and leaving it as an "either-or" tool. (It can service the audience, or it can service a core community, but for any given user, it can't service both). It does *not* help a user cross the gap between community and audience, and therefore remains far less popular than the bigger names in social technology.

This problem of crossing the gap from core community to authority/audience isn't just for social technologies, however. Any form of human collective endeavor suffers from it. How many companies that function well as a startup are unable to take the leap to full-fledged corporation? (Eric Schmidt admits that even Google's biggest problem is managing growth). How many grass-roots political movements get co-opted by established incumbents? (Something the notoriously decentralized Tea Partiers rightly fear). In the connected age, whether you are building a social technology, or cultivating like-minded people to a cause or corporate mission, building a system (or culture) that is flexible enough to accept growth beyond a core community, without destroying the core community in the process, is the key to success. This not only explains the successes and failures of various social technologies, but also explains the rise of the web itself in the face of the far-less flexible traditional media.