Why Are Living Networks So Smart?
A lot of people have studied the wisdom that emerges out of networks in nature. Do a search on “superorganism,” “emergence” or “swarm intelligence,” and you’ll find a nice trail of Wikipedia and other articles.
Take ants, for example. Over millions of years, they evolved a clever mechanism for finding the shortest path between food sources and their ant hill. Each ant moves out in a random search pattern. Those that find food excrete a chemical pheromone trail to guide other ants to the food and back. The pheromone itself slowly evaporates over time, so that the shortest path between food and hill retains the strongest signal.
This approach to optimizing flow in a network is so efficient that software engineers have a name for it; they use the ant colony optimization algorithm in all kinds of applications from vehicle routing, to project management and even protein folding.
That’s the power of tens of millions of years of evolutionary tweaking – and the power of feedback loops.
Why Are Human Networks So Smart?
Humans excrete pheromones too, but that’s not how we communicate … online, at least. Instead, we “plus” and we “like” the little bits of ‘information nuggets’ farmed and foraged by our friends and fellow networkers on Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
In other words, we just spent tens of millions of years evolving, and all we got were these lousy buttons.
But there is something different about the signals that we humans use in our networks. It’s not just instinct at work. We are conscious of the signals we send and receive in our networks, and use a range of cognitive skills to aid us in making countless micro-decisions about which content is most interesting to us.
For the most interesting content, we don’t just like or plus it; we comment on it and share it with our connections. Get enough of those signals on your own content and it won’t disappear quite so quickly in the social media stream. This is of course quite deliberate; our social networks now imitate the way ant pheromones evaporate over time to ensure only the content with the most feedback remains visibile in our stream.
Our social networks are, in fact, brilliantly designed to concentrate signals within groups of people. They do that by drawing upon a new kind of aggregated human processing power. On a typical day on Facebook, people contribute some 3 billion likes, comments, photos and other content to the network.
That’s a lot of signal feedback.
All this feedback requires an expenditure of energy; little bleeps of condensed intelligence in the form of three billion micro-decisions over what is – and what isn’t – interesting. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and now LinkedIn have engineered a way to tap this amazing aggregated intelligence in realtime.
It is truly a remarkable engineering achievement – not just in software architecture, but social architecture as well.
When you zoom in to look at what’s happening inside this massive swirl of content processing, what you see is a bunch of individuals organizing content, or what people in social media circles call “content curation.”
Content curation on social networks isn’t just about managing and adding value to content, though; it’s also about how that content is distributed. It’s about getting information to where it needs to be.
To pull together, sift through, and select for presentation.
Keep looking though, because within these networks, we don’t just curate content – we also curate people. This is where network smarts comes into play – because it’s not just about more connections; it’s about more of the right connections.
How We Curate Our Connections
At the simplest level, we form a connection when we friend someone on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or circle them on Google+. But just because you follow someone doesn’t necessarily mean you pay attention to them.
On Google+, many people use “circles” to help them prioritize their relationships. For example, I have a circle that I call “Tier 1” with 51 people to whom I pay particularly close attention. You can do something similar on Twitter and Facebook with “lists.” People in my Tier 1 circle get a lot more attention from me than other people do – more plusses, comments and re-shares – and that added attention helps keep their posts higher up in the Google+ stream. I’m adding feedback to strengthen their signal, just like an ant to a pheromone trail.
It’s not just through circles and lists that we tune our attention to people. It’s way more subtle than that. Just as with our offline, face-to-face interactions, there are just some people to whom we pay more attention. We tune in when they speak – and when we see their posts while scrolling down the social media stream.
Here’s the kicker though. Because of the way these networks are engineered, all that feedback you’re giving to people’s posts actually shapes the network itself. On Google+ and Facebook, when you stop paying attention to someone, their posts start to “evaporate” from your stream. Google uses a “relevance” algorithm that weights people’s importance to you and Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm does the same thing. These algorithms continue to evolve, but essentially the way they work is that if you ignore someone long enough, that’s interpreted as a signal that the network uses to weaken your connection to that person over time. You then see less of their content, pay even less attention to them, and create a feedback loop that effectively prunes them out of your network – even though you’re technically still “connected.”
Why All This Matters
These countless bits of feedback shape our networks, making them better and better at getting the right information to and from the right people. It really is what makes our human networks so smart.
Most of us use social networks for social purposes. But increasingly, we’re also using them for work. There is a growing base of people who are quite skilled at using these systems to professional end. When you look at what these individuals actually do with their time on these networks, you see that they’re spending as much time curating their connections with people as curating their content. Investing in their relationships helps keep their content up high in our social streams, which in turn, strengthens relationships, and creates a powerful, positive feedback loop.
In other words, by investing in curating their connections with people, these individuals are shaping their networks to more effectively communicate their work to an increasingly networked world. And today, that network influence translates into real professional advantage and economic opportunity both online and offline.
We are still in the early phases of this new form of economic and social power. Much of it is currently concentrated in the big social networks, but these same dynamics will expand their hold in new ways as companies invest in online communities and other networking tools to connect with their various stakeholders.
The way we curate our connections shapes our networks in ways that affect their health and effectiveness. But because of the prominent role that networks now play in our economy, it also affects people’s access to opportunity. So getting this stuff right actually matters. It matters a lot.