A book review.

Memes form the cornerstone of what you might call a cultural evolution theory. Richard Dawkins proposed the idea in the 1970 in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Although Dawkins’ introduction to the idea was merely a chapter long and felt as an afterthought to his main thesis of genetics, the idea of memes soon gained traction on its own. Nevertheless it took some 30 years before Susan Blackmore wrote a ‘proper’ introduction to memetics, by then still a nascent field of study. Although the word meme has found its way into our language, the theory of memes is still less known, which was reason for me to pick up the book and find out about the theory’s reach and potential.

What are memes? Memes are to culture what genes are to biology. When idea’s or behavior spread from person to person, there is some underlying thing called a meme which is copied from one brain to the other. Memes are subject to cultural selection. Depending on the existing culture some spread easily- while others don’t. According to meme theoreticians, cultures evolve  through meme copying and selection.

It is within this framework that Blackmore tries to advance our understanding of memes. Before examining her contributions in more detail it may be good to take stock of Dawkins notion of Dawkins notion of the “Selfish Gene”, as it is important to Blackmore’s thinking about memes.

Dawkins central argument is that it makes sense to look at the gene as the main actor of evolution rather than the species – as Darwin originally portrayed it. In Dawkins’ view genes are replicators, who have sophisticated schemes to reproduce themselves. This includes building organisms that help them to live longer and gives them a better chance to reproduce. Species are the result of genes competing for better replication opportunities rather than the other way around.

Note that Dawkins does not think of genes as ‘selfish’ in the sense that they have a ‘will’ to copy and multiply. In a world where things can replicate and they compete with other things that can also replicate the replicator which is most successful in sustaining itself and replicating will persist while others disappear.  The disadvantage of Dawkins’ explanation that it is teleological: he acts as if genes have a will. You shouldn’t read too much into that, but of course Dawkins’ audiences did. Once genes have a will, you start to act as if they have power, success and a plan for the word. This is stretching the argument – and Dawkins proposed nothing like this, but it is collateral damage of teleological arguments,  that seems to have infected Blackmore as well.

What are memes? To understand memes we need to understand human imitation. Learning through imitation is fairly unique to humans – at least we are the only ones who are really good at it. According to Blackmore when we mimic others, something underlying is copied from one human brain to the next, this is the meme. So when humans learned to imitate one and another memes got copied and selected, starting off cultural evolution. Humans quickly learned to use tools and make cave drawings. They started to use language and make music, and, after a while, drew up the universal declaration of human rights and traveled to the moon – and animals who do not imitate do nothing of such sort.

Many people think cultural evolution effectively stopped biological evolution, but Blackmore thinks it was the other way around. In her view cultural evolution was  a primary driver for the biological evolution of many of the traits that we now see as uniquely human. Once humankind started to imitate, useful inventions such as tools and practices could spread much faster than biological evolution allowed. This advantage ensured biological evolution started to select on ability to imitate.

At first this may only have been through natural selection, but soon sexual selection may have played a role as well. If good imitators have better chances of surviving offspring, traits that have no use in itself, but are clear signs of imitation ability will become attractive. This sexual selection may have been the driver for, for example our musical abilities. Seen in this light, our imitation ability may have been the driver of biological changes such as our big brains and our quite sophisticated language abilities.

Memes, according to Blackmore do not only drive our biological evolution, but also our technological evolution. If we would look at cultural evolution in another way we might explain the invention and spreading of all kinds of tools, from the practical advantage they offer humans. But meme theory puts special attention to technologies that help us communicate, such as the alphabet, printing press, radio, television and the Internet. These are especially useful to the memes as they help them spread faster.

Communication technologies alter the way memes spread and they increase the memes reach. Before the communication revolution, memes spread mainly from parents to children. A ‘vertical’  transmission of idea’s, closely aligned with biological evolution. This is why the great religions encourage reproduction, as this is a way to spread the religion memes. But because of the communication revolutions ‘horizontal’ peer-to-peer meme spreading has become much more common. This is why communication media can be so disruptive: they can lead to instabilities in our believe systems. Blackmore’s writings predate the filter bubble, otherwise she would probably assert that social media lead to a fragmentation of human beliefs.

An important idea that runs through the book is that meme spreading is not linked in any way to their truth value or source. It is not the case scientific memes spread in a better way than complete gossip. Memes are selfish, like genes, in the sense that any tactic for spreading will do as long as it outperforms others. Selection of memes does take place against the backdrop of other memes already in our head, so education can make us more sensitive so some memes than others. But at least our current education does not prevent us from believing in irrational ideas. Blackmores own work with people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens is a vivid example of this.

Another, related, theme in the book is how, once released, memes took over. They took over our biological evolution just to make sure they could be copied in a better way. They took over our technological evolution for the same reasons. Following Blackmore’s argument it is the memes, not humans, who invented the printing press. Once robots will be able to carry on the memes, assuming they are better meme machines, robots will take over the world – for the memes sake.

So, how should we evaluate this meme theory? To be honest, I found the book rather unconvincing. To Blackmore’s memes are the answer to many big questions in science. Most often, when one simple idea explains nearly everything it too good to be true. Blackmore clearly stretches the idea of the selfish meme too far, when she suggests it is the memes who invented communication technology for their benefit. If surviving memes are the result of a blind selection process, they do not steer cultural evolution in a particular direction. Although Blackmore is a scientist, her account of meme theory is that of a believer. It is speculative and testable theories are hard to find in the book.

And many essential questions remain unanswered. Is imitation really so unique to humans? What about birds?  Do memes exist? Nobody can find or even define them. Are memes really necessary or useful to explain cultural evolution? Other cultural evolution theories remain undiscussed in the book. Rather than reducing cultural evolution to a single underlying idea, shouldn’t it be seen as an interplay of, for example the interplay of the evolution of art, technology and ideology – all with their own mechanisms and speeds?  What do we really gain by this cold picture of a world-wide meme contest taking over humans and technology?

One could say that asking for answers to those questions, is like asking Darwin at birth his theory of evolution through natural selection how this inheritance he proposed worked – exactly. Meme theory has, in the words of Dawkins and Blackmore, not found their Watson and Crick yet. This is a fair counterargument but it leaves meme theory in the same state as Darwin’s theory just after he published the origin of species: an interesting and tantalizing hypothesis, not an established theory. Besides, meme theory now exists for 50 years. One would expect the evidence for it to be mounting up right now,  and, unfortunately, Blackmore isn’t in a position to present such a pile of evidence.

Reading more?

Blackmores idea’s resonate somehow with Thomas de Zengotita’s ideas on the role of media in society: in particular the importance of imitation for culture. I wrote about the history of communication technology in my reviews of James Gleick’s “The information” and in Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”

Earlier book reviews include Kim Zetter’s “Countdown to Zero Day”, Donna Harraway’s “Simians, Cyborgs and Women” and Martin Hand’s “Ubiqiutious Photography”

 

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A book review of Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated.

 “Saying it’s just more of what we had before is like saying a hurricane is just more breeze”.

Culturally, the media form the air we breathe. They have such a widespread presence in modern life that stepping back and form theory of media in society has become nearly impossible. It is like making a theory of the importance of bacteria for life in general, or the effect of the existence of matter for our psyche. Nevertheless, this is the project taken up by Thomas de Zengotita in his book “mediated”, who, in trying to answer this question draws out a powerful cultural critique of modern society.

De Zengotita argues the free availability of an abundance of representations for any event is a defining characteristic of modern life. To grasp what this means you might want to trace your behavior in case of a dramatic event like a major earthquake, war event or refugee crisis. First you read the news to be informed about what has happened. Soon you know, but you keep on reading: smaller side stories catch your attention and enrich your understanding of the impact of the event; possibly providing a bit of solace along the way. Analyses follow, one tumbling over the other – each highlighting a different side of the story. Soon, you have digested so much derivative stories that the reality of it all is fading. Maybe, like many, you compensate for this loss of engagement by seeking out more extreme and thrilling stories. But the overall effect is that you get numbed by the overwhelming amount of information thrown at you. We try to get moved picking out experiences that move us and we become indifferent because there are too many of them.

Zengotita argues the mechanism is pervasive. Not even the weather escapes from this representation generation machine. There are multiple 24hr weather channels, so weather forecasting has become a competitive sports of precision science up to the point natural chaos lets us down. Storms are covered as celebrities; including the modern practice of giving them a name. The weather no longer just is, it is whatever representations we choose it to be. De Zengotita:

 “We have been consigned to a new plane of being engendered by mediating representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us everything is for us and nothing is beyond us anymore.”

When representations become everything two distinct themes get to govern our lives: authenticity and performance. Media present us with so much fakeness that we gained a deep and strong longing to feel real, leading into us favoring things that seem authentic. And at the same time we started to value those who know how to play the representation system well. We love those who know how to perform, who know how to be in the center of attention: pop stars and sportsmen.

Let’s focus on our present day obsession with performance first. In a particular vivid vignette in the book, Zengotita illustrates how teenage girls rule the middle school. A small clique of girls sets the standards for everyone of how to behave. They are performers, picking up style, norms and especially attitude from the media. Anyone who does not know how to play this is left out, socially. Attitude is often learned from music: the song forms a nexus between the given,  the unmediated,  and words. Attitude, and popularity, are important assets, or ambitions, that media provide for. Dominant girls in middle school (so, around 12 years old) are the quickest to pick up the unwritten rules of the media and they enforce those vigorously – thus also enforcing the norm the media are the norm. Zengotita:

  “A child born into contemporary culture is in a perfect position to learn what she needs to know about life in a field of options and representations before her education gets underway”.

And so, when performance becomes the norm, old heroes disappear. The founding fathers – or whatever hero you’d like to celebrate from the past, cannot compete with today’s pop-stars. We cannot project ourselves into the heroes, make our own stories of them. In a mediated world everything is about performance, and the old heroes cannot perform anymore. In fact: Faust or Einstein, earn their heroic status because of a lack of representations rather than their performance in the media. In the modern media they might not have gained their current status.

The second issue is authenticity. If there are many representations of everything, each one gets less valuable. What stands out in this ‘representation commodification’ is the feeling to be real. This desire for authenticity leads into personal, idiosyncratic, media diets: people pick out the stories they can identify with. This makes Ladi Di’s story so powerful: she is a ‘normal’ woman thrown in an extreme situation (playing her role marvelously). Similarly, politics have become personal: Clintons ‘penis’, and what happened to it, is more important than his policy. In many ways it has been the only important thing.

We also seek out extremes for our own lives, to feel real again. Choosing a career takes longer than ever as we have more and more alternatives to choose from. Down time, relaxation, became stressful because it acts as a display of personality, with too many choices around. That is why we seek out to be ‘busy’, all the time. Zengotita:

“The agreement is this we will so conduct ourselves that everything becomes an emergency”.

Our search for reality has led to chasing in our own lives, what feels most ‘real’ in the media, which is, through the overflow of options, in fact, quite surreal.

What should we think of this analysis? Zengotita’s collection of vignettes makes up a fair characterization of what is currently happening in our media, but it also made me wonder. To what extent is this ‘new’? If authenticity and performance are the defining characteristics of our time, since when have they been so important? The rise of ‘the media’ and ‘modern times’ as Zengotita uses them has been a slow process running for ages – although possibly speeded up after the second world war. This question leads into the difficulty of teasing apart society and the media, which are so tightly interwoven. It is a difficulty that haunts “Mediated” from the first to the last page. The book forms a wonderful cultural sketch of our modern society, but reading the book I was in constant doubt whether the Zengotita’s observations were caused by to “the media” or by “human nature” – in particular to our social psychology.

One way to treat this difficulty is to say that media, social in their nature, strengthen our social psychological tendencies, and thus, make those more visible – and influential. This is in line of Marshal McLuhan’s view of modern media as an extension of our psyche and a ‘retribalizing’ cause in our lives. But it is an assessment which is hard to test. Social psychology and modern media are both complex, understanding their interactions, which have been slowly growing over time is merely impossible. I guess many accounts of these effects are needed to make some sense of this all, Zengotita, at least gives us one of those.

Reading more?

I did book reviews of Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media, Lev Manovich’ The Language of new Media, Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter and the Communication Age and James Gleick’s The Information, earlier.

I wrote about the connection between social psychology of new media in Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway, in Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter and the Communication Age and in A Short History of Social Media, before.

 


Cyberwariors

23Jul16

Reading Kim Zetter’s “Countdown to Zero Day”

You might not find it shocking news there is a digital weapons race going on between secret service agencies of nation-states like the US and other countries. Either you knew, or you expected it, or you wondered why you should care about this stuff at all. In all three cases I think you should read Kim Zetter’s Countdown to Zero Day. It is the trademark of a good nonfiction book that it takes something which is unjustly in the fringe of public attention and puts it in the spotlight. Zetters page-turner does this for cyber warfare and, almost in passing, she unpacks many questions we should have been asking for a long time. Recognizing the cliché, Zetter calls Stuxnet,  the computer program that takes the lead role in her book a game changer. It is my best hope her book will be just that for the public debate about digital warfare and the cyber security of our physical world. Contains spoilers.

Hackers call a previously undiscovered security vulnerability which is used by a virus a ‘Zero Day’. A Zero Day goes undetected by virus scanners, but they are rare. It takes much time and effort to develop them or a lot of money to buy them on the black market. Most creators of malware do not bother to go through this effort, they simply hunt for victims that did not update their virus scanners yet. However, as it turns out there are new players in cyberspace that have both the reasons and the means to create them.

The book revolves around the discovery of Stuxnet, a sophisticated worm that was discovered by antivirus agencies in 2007. It soon turned out that Stuxnet did not exploit just one, but four zero days; a vertiginous number, considering just how rare zero days are. In the book we get a peek over the shoulders of the Symantec team that studied Stuxnet for several months. They slowly unmasked the mindboggling virus as a subtle sabotage tool, aimed at slowing down Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Worse, it turned out to be part of a suite of digital weapons, created by the US and Israeli government. Stuxnett formed the opening shot of a completely new type of warfare starting in the digital realm, but perfectly capable of doing a lot of damage in the real world. It was a program of many firsts; and of many wakeup calls.

How can a virus cause physical damage to an industrial uranium enrichment plant? Well such plants are controlled by computers. The computers that control power plants and production faculties are specialised industrial systems (called PLC’s). Nevertheless, Stuxnet was able to feed those PLC’s malicious code. Such code can disrupt measurement and control loops managing for example gas pressure and temperature in a chemical factory, thus causing serious industrial accidents, blowing up machines or destroying a factory in another way. With Stuxnets disruption of Iran’s uranium enrichment program the sabotage had to be much more subtle. Stuxnet changed the frequency of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium gas, disrupting the enrichment process, and increasing their chances of breaking.

Stuxnet proof of principle of digital physical sabotage should make us think about how safe our own (nuclear) power plants, chemical factories and other partly computerized systems are. The sobering answer is: very unsafe. Subtle sabotage like Stuxnet did require detailed knowledge of both the programing language of the specific PLC’s as the real world processes these control. But a brute force attack is much, much easier and PLC security has not been a priority of the companies that produce them, as PLC viruses are new to the world. In other words: the safety of much of our heavy industry and public transport is reliant on control processes that can be disturbed easily.

But it doesn’t stop at industrial sites. It doesn’t take much imagination to see where this is heading with the internet of things becoming reality. One of the side stories in Zetter’s book, for example, deals with smart electricity meters. A virus can shut them down and disable the possibility of remote updates. The effect could be a city out of power, which can only be remedied by replacing smart meters in a door-to-door program. As more and more of our equipment gets digital control and network capacities, it is becoming vulnerable to cyber attacks. Anything ‘smart’ can be hacked. It is likely to be a matter of time until we see hacked electricity meters, traffic lights, tv-sets, cars, coffeemakers, toothbrushes and lightbulbs. A foreign  government will not likely be the one creating those attacks, but others can, – and will.

What should we think of hacking governments? Zetter’s book effectively debunks the myth that hacking is the domain of Russian criminals, seeking a quick buck. The sophistication of Stuxnet showed digital weaponry is a ‘power game’, for which only governments currently have the knowledge and resources. Digital weapons have a risky vulnerability though: they can be copied. It didn’t take long before other malware stared using Stuxnet’s zero days and the same can be done with the sabotage code. The Stuxnet virus has been difficult to create, but compared with a missile thrower or atomic rockets, it much easier to copy, adapt and remix a digital warrior into a different one. Besides, anyone infected has access to the code. So while the creation of a novel (type) of digital warrior requires much specialized knowledge, time and effort, making a ripoff is easy, at least in comparison.

So, Zetter probes in the ethics of digital espionage, sabotage and warfare and asks what ends might justify the means. What justifies hurting the trust of the customers of Microsoft, Siemens and anti-virus software sellers? Of releasing something that could boomerang back to the own state? Of opening an arms race in digital-physical warfare, considering the most networked countries are those who have most to fear and loose in case of total cyberwar? Zetter presents a balanced view of these questions and leaves them open for debate.

My answer would be a simple no, though. The risk of others developing a weapon is often used to justify creating something much worse, the atomic bomb is a vivid example. If cyber weapons can be used by any skilled hacker the drawbacks of a digital arms race will most certainly outweigh its benefits. In this sense it is telling and ironic that the first digital warrior was created to provide military backing to the nonproliferation treaty.

 

Reading more

If this wasn’t clear yet: I certainly recommend to read the book Countdown to Zero Day

I wrote about a more innocent digital arms race, in my post Collateral Damage of the Robots Race on the Web. Other book reviews include those of The Information, Simians, Cyborgs and Women and Metaphors We Live By.


Information seems such a central word today, it is hard to imagine it has not always been subject of scientific inquiry. Still it was not until the 1950ies scientific information theory developed, although it would soon penetrate many other sciences including such fundamental ones as biology and particle physics. As Donna Haraway remarked, until the eighties information was the dominant metaphor for most sciences only to be replaced by the network since then. In The Information Gleick traces the science of information from its birth through its golden years, in a compelling, exiting popular science text.

The book has a more or less chronological structure, featuring chapters about tribal long-distance communication with ‘talking drums’, writing, automatic calculation, telegraphy, telephony, entropy, computing, DNA, random numbers, quantum computers and the Internet. In particular in the first chapters of the book it highlights the enduring intercourse of technology and intellectual progress that is so characteristic of information theory. Writing, telegraphy, telephony and computing are all technologies, and these inspired human thinking by offering metaphors for understanding the world and proposing challenges which needed a solution based on theory. In a bit more cursory way, Gleick also talks about the impact of these technologies on society. Gleicks real interest is theory though, so societal changes are more a context from which he explains intellectual progress.

‘The information’ is in many ways a coming of age novel. In its childhood, information theory might have needed information technologies to support and sustain its development, nowadays information theory can stand on its own feed and in turns support many other fields. As the book progresses, it topics become more and more fundamental an abstract. Gleick discusses information as the opposite of entropy in physics, he discusses several incarnations of Gōdel’s proof that formal systems like mathematics must be inconsistent, and their application to the calculation of random numbers. And he starts discussing the utility of information theory in other fields. First and foremost genetics but also quantum mechanics culminating in a vivid discussion of nascent field of quantum computing.

In the last two chapters Gleick returns to the everyday reality, by discussing Internet and Wikipedia, but there is something offbeat to this part of the book. Although, in particular the chapter about Wikipedia, is well researched and exiting to read, the connection with information theory is lost in this chapter. I am not sure if Gleick intended it this way but the heroes journey of information theory ends in quantum computing. These wrap up chapters show the birth of the new hero theory: network theory. The 21st century is about networks as much as the second part of the 20ieth century, the era of telecommunication and computers was all about code.

Although the golden age of information theory may be behind us, I consider the information a must-read for anyone working in a field related to information, communication or computing, which is many us. And if network theory becomes mature enough, soon enough for a treatment like this, I surely hope Gleick picks it up.

Reading more?

My review of Donna Haraway’s Apes, Simians and Cyborgs is good entry into her ideas about the (mis)use of information theory in Biology.

I wrote several blogs about the way the internet changes our information bias. In particular: Thinking Internet & Thinking and Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway

I also wrote a series of post about network theory: Networktheory, Networks, the new flogiston?, Digital Networks,…, and real ones and Network flatness


This is the last post in a short series examining the benefits and drawbacks of thinking about the world in terms of ‘networks’ .  Earlier on, I gave an introduction to mathematical network theory, I discussed the network as a way of explaining the world and I discussed  social media as model for social networks. In this post I focus on the ‘flat’ and ‘democratic’ image that networks carry .

Why is it that people tend to regard networks as nonhierarchical? Mathematical network theory is perfectly suited to describe hierarchies as networks and even if hierarchy is not a defining property of the network, in most social networks a handful of people have much more influence or power than most. One reason networks are seen as flat may be the other big idea that is inspired, in part, by the Internet: self-organization.

The idea of self-organization predates the Internet, but it gained much traction lately. There turn out to be phenomena in the world that have an amazing complexity considering they emerged without a master plan or a leader giving orders. Bird flocks, termite hills and (most likely) the human brain are well known examples.  If these can come out of networks of animals each just exhibiting their own behavioral patterns, or just from networks of cells, why not self-organize as human beings? Look at how well democracy works.  Look at Wikipedia. All we have to do is to create (better) networks and order and common good will magically emerge.

The Achilles’ heel of this reasoning is of course that the examples of self-organization which are used as a source of inspiration are, in fact, sophisticated systems which evolved over many years. Yes, fairly simple, properly networked, behaviors can create complex phenomena benefiting the species creating them. But this only works if these are carefully tuned networks of simple behavior.  Self-organization may be occurring in all networks, but the result will more often than not be uncertain rather than favorable for all. Take traffic jams, these are form of self-organization too.

What do we know about the effects of increasing connectivity in a network? Two opposing dynamics appear to be at play. First, in networks with a high connectivity, the Internet as perfect example, there is a strong winner-takes-all dynamic. Before Internet we would find a bookstore on every corner, but in the online world only a handful of players like Amazon can survive.  In the less connected word every bookshop could preserve its own clientele in the neighborhood, because the switching costs to a bookshop farther away did not outweigh the benefits for most consumers. Increasing connectivity lowers the switching costs, increasing the action radius of the shops and the competition too. As a result bigger shops survive. So Google dominates search, Amazon dominates online retail. Similar things happen with increased connectivity in the real world. Better roads lead amenities too disappear in villages, because of increased connectivity to the city. The winner-takes-all dynamic thus leads to a centralization in networks, rather than a decentralization, like many proponent of self-organisation like to believe.

There is, however, an opposing dynamic, which Chris Anderson described in his book The Long Tail. The winner-takes-all dynamic creates a high head (few players take all the traffic), but Anderson pointed our attention to what is happening at the other end of the curve. Lets look at those who sell rare goods in small quantities.  Increased connectivity allows shops that would not sell enough in the less connected world because they serve such a niche market to gain the audience they need to be sustainable. Artists may be able to make a living out of selling their artwork thanks to the Internet because they can reach out to a bigger potential audience. Grocery shops may disappear in villages, but an expensive restaurant, for which people are willing to travel to the village may now survive.

The winner-takes-all and the long-tail dynamic are this two sides of the same, increased connectivity, coin. In my post thinking internet and thinking I included the following quote from Brian Eno.

 “I notice that everything the Net displaces, reapears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their records, but since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music, are becoming more common.”(Brian Eno)

This comment may very much be an illustration of the interplay between the two connectivity dynamics. Increased network connectivity leads to centralization and increased power when we look at who controls the commodities. Well connected networks are typically more hierarchical than less connected networks. But increased connectivity leads to decentralization and diversification when we look at the niches instead.

Interestingly, the biggest players on the net Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia have found ways to make use of both dynamics.  They managed to become the first stop for internet users, partly by aggregating much of what happens in the niches. It is fine to take those players as a source of inspiration, of the potential benefits of networks. But they do not show networks are flat or democratic (quite the contrary) and they are not examples of the wonders of self-organization. For that we better stick to termites.

Reading more.

An nice book about self-organisation is turtles termites and traffics jams by Mitchel Resnick. An advocate of human self-organisation is  James Surowiecki who’s book The Wisdom of the Crowds turned into a best seller.

This post is part of a series. The first post deals with mathematical network theory, the second with networks as an explanation of everything and the third with social media as a proxy for understanding social networks.

The Brian Eno quote in this blog was taken from my post “Thinking Internet and Thinking”, which deals with great minds anwers to the question how internet affects our thinking. I discussed several applications of network theory to marketing in my posts “Modeling the connected customer” and “The Traveling Influence Problem”.


This post is part of a short series on the benefits and shortcomings of ‘networks’ as an explanation of many things in our world. In previous editions, I first gave a short introduction to mathematical network theory and secondly I discussed whether explanations in terms of networks have added value over more simple explanations. In this post I focus on a third observation, which is not so much about networks as an explanation for social phenomena but about using experience with social media as a reference for thinking about social networks.

It can hardly be coincidental that the first film about facebook and its founder is called ‘the social network’. It is a matter of fact, so to say, that for most people the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of social networks is social media. This means that the network is used as a metaphor or model for something in the real world and Facebook and Twitter, in turn are used as a model for understanding networks. Is this helpful?  In a way: yes.  The binary markup of social networks sites bares close resemblance to the mathematical network theory I discussed in the first post of this series. But social networks come with their own misconceptions which may hinder understanding ‘real’ networks. Let’s discus a few.

First, social networks sites carry a focus on connectivity. They draw your attention to how well and with whom you are able to connect. This bears resemblance to mathematical network theory. Social media provide the perfect entry point for the importance of social connections and the way these work for us. But I guess I no longer need to stress that Facebook friends are not necessarily ‘real’ friends. The binary (on or off) nature of connections in network theory and social media is a course grained, not to say rude, approximation of reality. If you would track down all your digital contacts and list for what reasons you would be able and would want to use these connections, you would find each reason has its own associated social circle (and you would most probably defriend some people too). This qualitative view of your network is really much more insightful than just counting your friends. Connection is really a multidimensional concept and needs to be treated that way to be useful, unfortunately social media do not encourage us to look at it this way.

Second, more is not necessarily more. Statistically it may be important to have and maintain contacts with many others, but this is only one of many network roles. One example from mathematical network theory is what is called a ‘broker’. His special quality is not connectivity but his ability to connect two networks which are fairly disconnected otherwise, such as two schools of thought. Even in network theory which emphasizes the edges over the nodes it does count to whom you are connected, even if this is only to have access to their connections. Another example is the openness of the network. According to this forge article connecting to people who are different in many respects to you is an important predictor of academic success.  So, while social media stress (not unselfishly) the amount of friends you have it, connecting to the right people counts more. Network theory and social media may give you some hints on who they might be, but you have to cut through the quantity stuff first.

Let me finish with this one: and, if social media is your basis to understand networks, this may be a shock to you. You are not at the center of your own network. Network centrality is an important concept in social network analysis. Being central in the network means, you are the one which is most influential in the network, defined in terms of connectivity with others.  In your company, the CEO is likely to have the best centrality, although this is not always the case. Are you the most important and central person in your network? Aren’t you always the central person if the network is defined by you and your social circle? Not by definition. It may be a question about what aspect of the interaction with friends, you are looking at, but the likelihood someone in your social circle has better connectivity and influence than you even within your circle of friends is quite likely. We are all important and what we do matters, but we are seldom the most important, and really: that is ok.

Social media are in many ways a good introduction to mathematical network theory. I like to see them as a serious game on network theory, really. But they do carry weaknesses such as a focus on quantity of friends and a tendency to make you feel center of –at least- ‘your’ world. Moreover they carry the weaknesses of mathematical network theory, such as treating connectivity in a binary way with them. Simply put: as a reference for understanding social media are fine only keep in mind they are a –non neutral- abstraction: not the real thing.

Reading more.

I wrote about the importance of metaphor in my post “Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations”. I discussed several applications of network theory to marketing in my posts “Modeling the connected customer” and “The Traveling Influence Problem”.

This post is part of a series. In my previous post I introduced network theory and assessed its value as an explanation. My next post I will discuss central and decentral control in networks.