Social Graphs: Moron in the Middle?

IrishOutlaw asked me to expand on the social graphs comments that I made in my previous entry; this is my first attempt of (maybe) several, as the topic is rich. 

Graph topologies have nodes and edges.  What is interesting about any graph is how many nodes it has, how many edges it has, how many edges each node has, which nodes are connected, and, for social graphs, how strong those connections are.  Unfortunately, in my previous entry I used the somewhat-misleading words “central” and periphery” to describe nodes; those terms usually imply (low-dimensional) geometric concepts.  In any interesting (i.e., complex) social graph, one may not necessarily be able even to identify where a “center” or a “periphery” lies.  (Just like our (expanding) universe.)

So my question about the importance of being a “central” or “peripheral” node in a social graph may be better expressed in terms of edge count, or edge strength, for nodes.  Thus my previous entry can be translated to imply that the higher a node’s edge count is, the more fit it is.  The longer the node will “survive” (whatever survival means for a social graph).

I received a slightly different perspective from an unexpected source this week: Ben Goertzel.  Ben is one of the most intelligent people that I have ever interacted with, and he posted a note on the SL4 reflector this week in reference to his blog.  I had never read his blog before, so I was amazed to find that he was writing about social graphs and “being a neuron” last fall.

Ben is somewhat horrified to find that the messages passed by those with the most social graph connections (teenagers that constantly use IM, MySpace, Facebook, etc.) seem to be the most trivial: who’s dating whom, who’s cute, etc.  He decries the fact that as social graphs merge into some type of “global brain,” the result is looking a lot like a bunch of morons in the middle.

So maybe those who are the most connected have the least value to add to the graph’s content, while those who are the least connected may have the most to add?  (The “Emily Dickinson” hypothesis, anyone?)

But is the value of the content the supreme measure of fitness?  When we consider communications across outer space, or across a computer chip, there seems to be much overhead, much protocol involved.  Some space communications contain many more correction bits than data bits, for example.  And on a computer chip, the clock keeps beating even if the chip is idle.  So maybe having a heartbeat of communications is extremely important to the social graph, no matter how trivial the content.

And in a market of goods and services, “middle” men are extremely important.  The best sales people constantly spend “face time” with their customers, whether on actual sales calls or not.  So while sales agents may not create much content, their mere communications capabilities are extremely important.  At least until they can be replaced.

Which brings me back to the survival idea: what happens when Google, Digg, MySpace, FaceBook, even artificial intelligences, replace (the functions of) “middle” men?  Will they ever?

A week ago, I was under the impression that smarter and smarter tools would creep in from the “edges” of the graph first, replacing the “peripheral” nodes with the fewest connections, but now I’m not so sure.  Maybe the immediacy and bandwidth of modern communications will render the “middle” superfluous first.  Of course, the answer probably lies somewhere in the “middle” (sorry!), as our global economy creates ever smarter machines, ever greater accumulations of capital, for many possible uses.

Social Graphs v. Marx

In my last post, I mentioned Robert Sapolsky’s response to The Edge Annual Question – 2008.  As I continued to read the other responses to the question, I came across Tim O’Reilly’s response, which is about the importance of social graphs.  While having heard about MySpace and Facebook, I had never given much thought to social graphs.  So I googled “social graphs” and found Brad Fitzpatrick’s comments at the top of the search results.  Fascinating stuff.

The day after I read those web pages, I was reading Schumpeter’s 1942 essay about Marx called “The Marxian Doctrine.”  Schumpeter boils down Marx’s Economic Interpretation of History to only two points, the first of which is: “The forms or conditions of production are the fundamental determinant of social structures.”  So if MySpace, Facebook, or even the SixApart effort starts providing a much more useful fundamental determinant of social structures (shared interest rather than shared occupation), then Marx has another thought coming.  Especially as on-line social communities continue to blur the “line” between bourgeoisie and proletariat  The social graph has a much different (and much more subtle) topology than Marx’s bright line.  And without Marx’s line, there goes the class struggle as well.

The social graph idea raises a thousand questions: How does social graph technology affect governments? economics? media? politics? political campaigns?  Does social graph technology reveal special interest groups?

When social graphs are applied to media, do the nodes become information filters and the edges information flows?  If so, how does one become a major, central node?  Trustworthiness?  Volume?  Filtering for what is “important” (to other nodes) out of the information deluge?  Graph nodes start to look like the birth, growth, and death of brain neurons.  Or websites like Google.

What happens when robots become functional nodes in the social graph?  Even central to it? 

And is it important to be a central node, instead of on the periphery?  Is the periphery where the frontier is, where “start-ups” get built?  Is it less risky to be a central node?

And so we come full circle to Sapolsky’s response – the more-connected primates are the healthier primates; so are the more central nodes the most fit?

Mises and Sapolsky

I haven’t blogged in a while, because I just spent a couple (very busy) weeks in NH with Operation Live Free or Die.  It was amazing to meet so many people so very dedicated to liberty as our founding fathers knew it.

When I returned from NH, I found this great site linked from a slashdot article: The Edge annual question – 2008.  One of the responses to the year’s question (“What have you changed your mind about?  Why?”) is from Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford.  His response includes the following words:

other change concerned my life as a primatologist, where
I have been studying male baboons in East Africa. This
also came in the early 90’s. I study what social behavior
has to do with health, and my shtick always was that if
you want to know which baboons are going to be festering
with stress-related disease, look at the low-ranking ones.  Rank
is physiological destiny, and if you have a choice in the
matter, you want to win some critical fights and become a
dominant male, because you’ll be healthier. And my change
of mind involved two pieces.

first was realizing, from my own data and that of others,
that being dominant has far less to do with winning fights
than with social intelligence and impulse control. The
other was realizing that while health has something to
do with social rank, it has far more to do with personality
and social affiliation — if you want to
be a healthy baboon, don’t be a socially isolated one.

This quote reminded me of words about division of labor and human society from Mises’s Human Action, page 146: “Every step by which an individual substitutes concerted action for isolated action results in an immediate and recognizable improvement in his conditions.  The advantages derived from peaceful cooperation and division of labor are universal.  They immediately benefit every generation, and not only later descendants.  For what the individual must sacrifice for the sake of society he is amply compensated by greater advantages.  His sacrifice is only apparent and temporary; he foregoes a smaller gain in order to reap a greater one later.  No reasonable being can fail to see his obvious fact.  When social cooperation is intensified by enlarging the field in which there is division of labor or when legal protection and the safeguarding of peace are strengthened, the incentive is the desire of all those concerned to improve their conditions.”

Division of labor works.  Peace works.  It’s so cool to see, again and again, that the a priori reasoning of Mises predicts what the empiricist will see.