All 3 entries tagged Mark Buchanan

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October 22, 2005

Research Notes: small world networks, extended cognition, the mangrove effect, blogs

Follow-up to Research Plan: ideas for researching networking, narrowcasting and broadcasting by bloggers from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Small world networks, of the kind that I think exists in Warwick Blogs, are a form of 'extended cognition' as described by Andy Clark. They are a case of interpersonal extended cognition, a form of social thinking. The "mangrove effect" is another form of public extended cognition. How do these two forms relate? Is the "mangrove effect" visible in Warwick Blogs?

As I descibe in a previous entry , Clark uses the lifecyle of a mangrove island as a metaphor for how we sometimes use public language to speculatively play with ideas and see how they grow. I summarise metaphor as follows:

a mangrove seeds itself in shallow water, grows roots, traps other roots and particles, forms a network of roots with other mangroves that seed nearby (helped by the first mangrove), and eventually forms a more solid island within the sea.

Clark's argument is that by stating words publicly using an external cognitive apparatus (a web log would be a good example), even when they do not represent well formed ideas, thoughts and sense can be encouraged to form. We can easily play with the publicy stated words, manipulating them and seeing what emerges as they connect with other words. As a social process, involving other minds, this technique can lead in unexpected and successful directions.

It seems to me that "mangrove" style social thinking could be a core activity of the localized cliques that are probably the context for most blog entries. The clique tends to select phrases to be repeated locally, and provides opportunities for social thinking in a controlled space. But the small world network of Warwick Blogs offers two other possibilities:

  1. ideas that become well-formed can be transmitted to other localized networks through 'hubs' (people or pages that are authoritative in presenting selections of worthwhile content);
  2. ideas can also just free-float from one clique to another, for example via the "show all" page, where they may take root, or at least make the transmission through a hub more likely (hearing a message through several channels makes it more likely to be trusted and valued).

October 21, 2005

Research Plan: ideas for researching networking, narrowcasting and broadcasting by bloggers

Follow-up to Presentation of blogs at Oxford Brookes from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

For a while I have been searching for approaches to doing research that will uncover some of the patterns of behaviour that we see in the use of Warwick Blogs (and more importantly, why some of the expected patterns of usage seem to be so rare). Now I have a few ideas.

During my recent presentation at Oxford Brookes about Warwick Blogs (during which there was an excellent debate), someone made the observation that from the perspective of some outside person browsing through the latest entries in the "showall" aggregation page, it would be hard to understand why anyone would read our blogs, and consequently (given that most people write with the expectation that someone else will read their entries), why would anyone therefore ever write anything?

This wasn't a crude condemnation of the standard of writing within Warwick Blogs. Rather, the observation was that it was hard for an outsider to understand what is interesting in most of the entries (although some are genuinely interesting to the outside world).

Having just read Mark Buchanan's book on small world networks, I could see the error in this observation.

The assumption behind this attitude is that the entries within Warwick Blogs are on the whole written so that any random person may come along and find them interesting and worthwhile. The question assumed that writing a blog is a form of "broadcasting". Indeed this is understandable, as it tends to be such "broadcast" style blogs, aimed at a general and unknown audience, that have caught the interest of the media. The reason for this bias may well be that the traditional media somehow sense that they are being challenged in their dominance of broadcasting.

I suspect that, on the contrary, many blog entries are written with relatively narrow audiences in mind (narrowcasting), but with the open possibility that a wider range of people may end up reading them. This is entirely consistent with the "small world network" model. Meaningful activity occurs on a local and limited scale, determined by the individuals in close proximity. In the case of blogs, that is likely to be other friends who blog, and probably in many cases the friends who introduced the author to blogging. That makes for lots of very small and localized activity, meaningful within isolated cliques.

But there's more to a small world network than that. Operating within a clique presents the risk of being disconnected from the outside world. One may lose track of how to connect to new and unknown people. For a student, that is potentially disasterous, as at some point reality will bite and the clique will dissolve (reaching the end of the course for example). So it makes sense for members of the clique to make some consideration of the outside, to open themselves up to possible extra-clique connections. The clique makes sense of the activity, but the outside is needed to give a small reality check, to add a little affirmation that the activity has value beyond the clique, and to safeguard that value should the clique suddenly dissolve. To cope with this, small world networks emerge, with "hub nodes" that provide a connection between the clique and the outside (or other cliques). These hubs take many forms. In some cases a single key individual may play the role. In other cases, a broadcasting channel may do the trick.

What is really interesting, and perhaps not yet thoroughly researched, is how different the arrangements of different types of clique and hub may be of great significance. For example, in designing a new interpersonal communication system that relies both on cliques and on hubs, if we get the type of hub wrong, then the development of the system may be restricted.

My question then is this: what is the arrangement of cliques and hubs in Warwick Blogs? What kind of small world network is it? Could it work better with a different arrangement of cliques and hubs? Fortunately, I think that it should be easy for us to get empirical data on this, so long as we ask the right questions. Our questions will be based on a model of the relevant types of clique and hub. To start creating this, I have listed some of the forms of "casting" (broad and narrow):

  1. broadcasting – every entry appears on a "showall" aggregation page that lists the latest publications from the whole system;
  2. segmented broadcasting, with entries appearing only to readers with certain membership status (eg student only, university member only);
  3. directory focussed broadcasting – an entry appears in "showall", but the author is writing with consideration of one of the groups represented by an aggregation page in the blog directory;
  4. tags based broadcasting – author targets their entry to people who are likely to be viewing all entries with a known shared tag;
  5. Google targeted broadcasting;
  6. narrowcasting to a limited known predefined group, controlled by privacy controls.
  7. narrowcasting to a limited group, controlled by privacy controls and "favourites" subscription.
  8. narrowcasting in which the privacy permissions are set to allow anyone, but the author tells specific people (often family and friends) to look at the entry (often by email) – added following Graham's suggestion.

And then we will need some questions that we can use to work out which of these are being used, and to what effect. For example:

  1. did the author consider the mode of casting – the audience?
  2. who did they consider the audience to be?
  3. did this affect what they wrote?
  4. were there instances in which they changed what they planned to write because of the mode of casting?
  5. were there instances in which they changed the mode of casting because of what they wrote.

If you are interested in joining in with this research, please contact me

October 20, 2005

Book Review: small world networks and other amazing coincidences

Book front cover
Small World: Uncovering Nature's Hidden Networks
Mark Buchanan
4 out of 5 stars

A quick detour into the theory of small world networks (six-degrees of separation, friend-of-a-friend, etc) has just provided me with some ideas that I suspect will resurface in both my philosophy research and my e-learning work. It also gave me a remarkable coincidence of the kind described in the book itself.

After spending a few weeks away from my research project, I usually restart my thinking by quickly reading a popular-science/history/art-theory book of some kind. My means of choosing such a book is usually quite aleatoric: the criteria being "something that sounds good, is easy and fast to read, and which may provide some unforeseen empirical data for my conceptual activities".

Mark Buchanan's book, selected from the popular-science section of Waterstone's in an instant, without much consideration, met these criteria well. The aim of the book is to convey and contextualize what is a fairly simple idea. But what makes that simplicity into something more significant is that it is an idea that seems to have been overlooked, and which once brought into consideration, gives explanatory sense to lots of seemingly unrelated phenomena. For me as a philosopher, that is interesting: what thoughts were impossible before the arrival of this concept? what errors were made?

The concept is, superficially, that of the "small world network": that is to say, how networks seem to naturally form from highly chaotic and random situations, into simplified but still random organisations, connected together by specially priveliged nodes that do much of the work of maintaining order and flow in the system. As a result of this priveliged position, and the dynamics of its connectivity, all kinds of sophisticated behaviours (economic, social, cognitive, ecological) can be seen to emerge: results of what has been called the network effect (although there is much more to this than the business model). It plausibly demonstrates how it is quite feasible for one random person to be only six degrees of separation from another random person. And then it extends this model to many further domains (physical, ecological, computational etc).

I'm thinking: Kant, sensus communis – what if he new about small world networks? Or conversely: Nietzsche – what did he know? And of course it is there in Deleuze and Guattari (concepts such as transversality), but rarely with the very definite examples that we now know of. A fascinating question to consider would be: when exactly did the concept of "network" arise? – and at what point did people start realising that the conditions for the establishment and operation of a network may cause certain behaviours, patterns and organisations to emerge (the network effect)?

Connect it to Andy Clark's extended cognition theses (with its tightly coupled systems). And throw in our experiences with the small world system known as Warwick Blogs. Interesting. Very.

Even more so because it turned out that, as I discovered on page 16 as the author described the kind of surprising coincidence that a small-world network can cause, I am in fact only two degrees of separation from Mark Buchanan! He is a friend of a friend As I read…

I moved a few years ago from the United States to London to take up an editorial position with Nature

…I dropped the book when I realised that he may well share an office with my friend Karl, who is also an editor with Nature, also working in the physical sciences. Karl is a Moosehead, with whom I occassionaly drink, eat chillis, and bellow loudly. On Friday night (whilst in the Bilash in Botley) I explained this to Travis (also a Moosehead, if not the head Moosehead). Travis was actually planning, that night, to write an email to Mark Buchanan. It may even be that I have met the author at some Moosing event at some time (although I may have been drunk and therefore incapable of remembering the names of any new acquintance). Spooky. Or just the result of a small world network.

Buchanan's book does well to rapidly explain the work of Watts and Strogatz, Granovetter, and other pioneers. It is entertaining and full of fascinating examples throughout – especially when dealing with the ingenious experiments of the sociologist Stanley Milgram. The connecting-up of cases from such a wide range of domains begs many questions (important philosophical questions that I think Deleuze and Guattari address effectively in What is Philosophy?). But it is very much worthwhile because of that.

I'll give the book 4 stars (not 5, as it could do with a bit more detail on the mathematics and mechanics of the networks).

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