When I first began reading Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life by Albert-Lászlá Barabási, I wasn’t quite sure what this book had to do with journalism. Granted, I’ve only read the first nine chapters of the book so far.
You’d think that a book by a physicist would be terribly technical and hard to understand, but Barabási balances his physics explanations with relatable anecdotes and examples that can be understood by a lay person. This is what I really like about the book so far.
According to Barabási, everything in the world is made up of networks: a cocktail party, a living cell, Hollywood, the Internet. And all of these networks are similar. Each network has a node or single cell that is a point on the network. For example, at a cocktail party, each individual at the party is a node. As each person becomes acquainted with another person at the party they form a link. Several people meeting in a small group within the party form a hub (a cluster of nodes with several links).
Barabási points out that, although the Internet is a man-made construct, it too follows the rules of naturally occurring networks. There are those websites that are hubs with the most connections and activity and there are several smaller websites with fewer connections that would be considered nodes. Each website connects to the other.
Six Degrees of Separation
While reading this book, I kept thinking about how more and more people are connected through social media; particularly on LinkedIn. Barabási says that each person has an equal number of connections and most anyone can be connected within six degrees.
The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon comes to mind and is actually based on this concept. In the game every actor in Hollywood can be connected to Kevin Bacon either directly or through a number of other actors.
I have witnessed this six degrees of separation phenomenon in my own life. Sometimes, after reading a news story or book I really like, I will look up the author online. To my surprise, I have discovered that a few of the authors have been third or second degree connections in my LinkedIn network.
On Facebook, I discovered that a couple of my previous professors are also friends with one of my Facebook friends. On both these platforms, I don’t have large networks yet I have found these overlaps in connections.
Before social media, these types of relationships would only be revealed through a chance conversation with a first degree friend.
With social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, people see their personal network within three degrees. They no longer have to wait for that chance conversation to find out if they have a connection in common.
Break the Internet
The most interesting chapter in the book for me was Chapter 9: “Achilles Heel” in which Barabási discusses the strength of networks. In nature, the disappearance of a species which is part of our ecological network can cause a disruption but the network adapts and goes on. The same happens in the man-made Internet network. If a natural disappearance of a node or hub occurs, the network adapts. When Google became the dominate search engine replacing Yahoo as the number one search engine the network adapted.
Barabási says that if the hubs of the internet — the sites that the majority of people are connected with — were taken out by a malicious attack at one time, then the Internet would be broken. (So much for Kim Kardashian breaking the Internet.)
All of this got me thinking: How can I use what I’ve learned in the first half of this book as a journalist? I use social networks to share my stories. I can identify my primary source’s organic networks in order to interview more sources for stories. What else can I do? Maybe I’ll get more ideas in part two of the book.