society/technosociology/social networks


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In this excellent post on Progressive Trust, Christopher Allen describes how trust develops between humans and how this meshes with technological notions of trust. When choosing how to divide our attention, we make use of numerous conventional credentials: are you at a professional conference I attend? Are you well spoken and polite? As we continue to interact, and develop a greater body of shared experience and understanding, we refine our trust in each other.

I'm a little surprised, though, that Christopher didn't mention blogs. What makes blogs (and the RSS-powered subscription mechanism) so powerful for getting you information you care about is trust. Specifically, you can think of a blog subscription as an indication of trust that some feed will contain items of interest. It is a rather coarse-grained indication of trust, but is quite effective. Especially when I the reader have my own blog, and participate in the common practice of linking and excerpting the especially interesting content from my subscribed feeds. When I do that, I am delegating trust—the trust placed in me by my readers can connect to Christopher because of the trust I have for him.

This is exactly what happens in social situations. Suppose you're at a party and meet someone new. What's the first thing you ask them? "So, how do you know Bob?" Now suppose you know Bob has despicable taste in music, but he makes the world's best cheesecake. You'll spend a lot less time talking with someone who answers "I played in a grunge band with Bob in 1992" than someone who answers "I'm a pastry chef instructor at the local culinary institute where Bob took night classes." This example, ubiquitous in our social lives, illustrates how powerful and adaptable trust is. Even without being consciously considered.

The amazing thing about blogs is that they can reflect this kind of nuance. Almost every blogger has a variety of interests, sometimes spread among multiple blogs, a blog and a livejournal, or categories within a blog. Furthermore, blogs cluster into communities based on shared interests, such that if you subscribe to any of the blogs in the community you are unlikely to miss any major news within the community. This redundancy permits individual bloggers to specialize in the details, and offers readers a chance to adjust who they trust, over time, as they learn more about their options. Just like if you're first interested in an academic field, you can work with any professor who's involved and learn a lot from them; but if you want to do a PhD thesis you'd better find someone who not only is interested in something you want to study, but is also easy for you to get along with.

Frassle, my blogging platform, is an attempt to emphasize and scale up the trust mechanisms already informally used throughout blogs. Another smart take on this situation is Robin Good's discussion of the NewsMaster.

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A social networking and dating site for Ayn Rand devotees. Let me not presume to speak for its members:

Felicia – 18, single
I am in my senior year in high school and I am an Objectivist. I absolutely love self confidence. It is extremely important to me that any friend or significant other be as comfortable with himself as I am with myself.

[via Todd Gamblin]

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There are some great observations in this overly long essay.

One interesting trend is the shift of value away from software and toward the network effects surrounding software-based services. What this means is that while the software of ebay or amazon or orkut is fairly easy to clone, each of these businesses has its competitive advantage in the scale and involvement of its user base. The advantage is not in writing software, but in developing self-sustaining communities that invite and reward effective participation. This is dependent on software in roughly the same way that good cities are dependent on the layout of public spaces, roads, parks, transit networks, and buildings. Given enough money, you could clone all of these aspects of a city, but your clone wouldn't have any life until it was full of people constantly occupying the physical space and gradually reshaping it to fit their own lives.

In other words, skills now crucial in making software aren't taught in The Art of Computer Programming. If you want to make software, read Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing, or better yet, A Pattern Language.


There is also some grist for the prediction mill in this essay. Here are mine:

  • Microsoft will ship open-source software within 10 years. Leading up to this point, they will transition to a business focused primarily on helping people find and use content (including software) created by third parties. Their software margins will crumble during this time period, but they may be able to sustain a profitable software business by driving quality up and cost down due to explosive growth in the number of devices that use software.
  • Some interesting stuff is going to happen when people start figuring out how to commoditize network effects. This problem will require figuring out how to make software more responsive to user intentions, and less brittle at the mercy of incompatible formal interfaces. The driving forces in the next generation of programming systems will be social, not technical.

I was reading a post by Cesar Brea who notes the coolness of the Event Share Framework (ESF) for RSS. ESF allows blog/news feeds to include data about events—start time, duration, location, and so forth—and can be easily integrated with calendaring applications. For example, you could subscribe to a calendar feed of events in your workplace and have them automatically show up on your Outlook calendar.

Cesar notes some ways to increase the value of sharable calendars:

Imagine a site called calendar.com that aggregates RSS-ESF feeds (the domain name is taken, btw, even though no live site's up). Think Google for events. Search by where you live / travel, time/ date range, keyword. Find person/ organization with events you would like to go to/ attend remotely. Subscribe and get future events and updates sent to your Outlook calendar / PDA calendar automatically. As a person trying to schedule your next cub scout pack meeting, check calendar.com to see when a good date would be based on "related groups'" calendars (e.g., other organizations in your town, like school, church, sports leagues, etc.).

The question of finding "related" calendars is interesting. Note that Cesar suggests exploiting existing physical communities for this information. Of course, with most of my friends carrying out data entry for Friendster, why not just reuse that data? Duh, because it's locked in Friendster.

Friendster, which has the social network data but only primitive communication systems, ends up being a big collector's game.* If Cesar's hypothetical calendar.com could get at that data, it could easily support a scheduling wizard that crawls your social network and suggests times for potential events based on likely interested people, or suggest attendees for an event based on their availability and interest. This is of great value for the user. It would be a good reason for Friendster to create simple APIs (subject to user control so that privacy can be controlled). In fact, if there were useful services like these, I'd happily pay Friendster to make my data available (of course, I am more of an online exhibitionist than most).

Friendster, Inc. probably doesn't believe that's a viable option because it opens up their most valuable asset—the network data of millions of users—to the competition. On the other hand, it also vastly increases the value of that data because it can be used in novel applications that Friendster, Inc. will not be able to invent and implement. Opening up but controlling an API, inviting innovation from small vendors, and then taking over the biggest markets is a good way to make money. It's the Microsoft model. Maybe Friendster should give it a shot.


* Here's a goofy idea for a metric of the value of a social network service like friendster. Simply run a survey to determine what percentage of users have gotten laid thanks to using the service. Call this the score score. I'd imagine friendster has a pretty low score score, like .001%, but livejournal much higher, perhaps 3%.

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This 2002 interview discusses some cool ideas about emergent properties of online communities. This interaction struck as particularly prescient about the personalization tasks that frassle hopes to take on, which were more recently spelled out by Robin Good.

Dornfest. What's interesting is that Slashdot worked for me to a certain degree, and then to a certain degree it worked for me only to the extent that I was an average Slashdot reader — which I'm not. Even if I turned off everything but the highest rating posting, I still find a lot of noise to signal. What has emerged in the weblog community is that I don't have to become an average Slashdot reader, I can say, I'm kind of like Cory, and I'm kind of like Steven, and I'm kind of like Dave Winer in a certain sort of way. I'll read their things, and they'll point me to the appropriate things, including Slash articles.

So you have this wonderful after-market community. And if I decide, for example, that Dave Winer's focusing too much on politics, I may stop reading his blog, but I'll still get stories from him, via somebody else.

The result is that when I wake up in the morning, I get to see a lot of the stories that come through Slashdot or from the New York Times that are interesting to me, without having to wade through Slashdot to find them.

Johnson. That's a great point. I know people are working on creating the meta-blogs, and I feel there's an incredible opening to create that — the thing like Slashdot that sits on top of all the blogs, and is collectively filtered by all those bloggers and their readers. There are a lot of different versions of that, but I don't see one that's really solved the problem. To me, the thing that has to happen to the individual blogs is that they're still too centered around the personality of the blogger him- or herself. They're still too limited to emailing the blogger, or a crude bulletin board. What I would love to see is, one way or another, by force of personality or whatever, to have these clusters of 100 or 200 or maybe 1,000 people who offered real contributions and collectively owned the thing.

read the whole interview »

How can these writers bear to have such far-reaching, broad, prescient visions but not go and try to implement them? Isn't it a gnawing frustration, having to wait for someone else to try it and watching them bungle it up? Or is it that these visioniaries have seen how difficult, messy, and error-prone the implementation process really is, and they'd prefer just to sit in the background and have their occassional "I told you so"?

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Jeremy Zawodny links to some rather interesting posts by Diego Doval about social networks. I've read the first and half of the second. The first discusses some UI and usability issues; the second explains some interesting mathematical analyses of social networks. These are important because currently, social network software is computationally very, very primitive. We continue to invent and implement cool new things to do with that information.

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The oldest club in Europe, an exclusive French society of dove breeders, used social networking tools since the late 17th century to connect its members via a handwritten newsletter, circulating from member to member, and being amended along the way.

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Mary Chitty recommends Gladwells Tipping Point. I afraid it might amount to a collection of fun but not that new or exciting anecdotes (for me). Social networks, mavens, viral marketing, blah blah blah. That sort of feeling. But Gladwell does post some of his nice New Yorker articles on his site.

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A researcher on internet / political / social issues. Some interesting papers to look at when I'm bored.