Linked: The Science of Networks (Part 2)

After reading the remaining chapters of Linked by Albert-Lászlá Barabási, I have come away with a clearer understanding of not only how the Internet and the World Wide Web work, but of how everything in this planet works. Not that I know the meaning of life or anything like that. I now feel I know what the scientists in different genres know: everything is made up of networks from the tiniest cell to the man-made Internet. And I realize that all that can change as our knowledge of networks increases.

The second half of  Barabási’s book explores network mapping and how information, fads and viruses are spread throughout various networks. We now know from the first half of the book that a hub has many links and, it would stand to reason that, if one gets information to the hub, the hub will  spread that information throughout the network.

If that were so, then making a video go viral or any information should be simple, right? Just identify the hub and get it there. But, it’s not that simple. If there is a breakdown in the very beginning of the distribution, the information or product will not be sent to the rest of the network.

Innovators and Early Adopters

The Apple Newton next to the original iPhone

One example that Barabási uses is that of the Apple Newton handheld computer. The Newton should have succeeded, but a few glitches in the programming that made it a bit cumbersome to use caused its demise.  The product was never adopted beyond the innovators who first tried it.

In the hub of a network there are a few innovators who will pick up a new product like the Apple Newton. If the innovators like what they see, they will spread it to the rest of the hub, who Barabási identifies as the early adopters, who will then spread it on to the rest of the network.

But, still not everyone will get the word on the new product or information.

Continents, Islands, and Tribes

The Continents and Islands of a Directed Networks (figure from Linked)

Barabási goes on to discuss how the World Wide Web is not a scale-free network, but a directed network within the scale-free Internet network. The directed network is a structure more like continents with a few islands. Nodes connected within the continents can share information but the islands are isolated. So, web pages that are on the outskirts of the Internet are the islands. They may never get found by search engines. Others that are part of the continent can get found, but it depends on their links.

Barabási’s research found that a lot of web pages only link to other pages espousing similar viewpoints. So that visitors of those pages only hear voices that are like their own. Barabási predicted that this would produce little villages of like-minded voices. I found this a fascinating prediction since this book was first published in 2002. Now, in 2018, our current discourse has been about the gravitation of people on the internet into like-minded tribes that only reinforce their own world views.

Internet as Super Computer

Barabási also talks about how the Internet network is growing so fast that it will eventually become autonomous. He says, “the Internet might become independent of human supervision, since it can shepherd most of the information and resources it needs to solve specific problems. This could have unforeseen impact on the Internet’s topology as well, giving self-organization a bigger role.” The Internet once autonomously networked would essentially become a super computer. The question he poses, “When will this computer become self-aware?” As a tech geek and science-fiction fan, I found this both fascinating and scary. Could the Internet become like the computer Hal 9000 in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey? I hope not. Perhaps it will be more like the LCARS computer in Star Trek.

My Take-Away

Networks are complex, but I do think I have found the answer to the question I asked after reading the first half of the book: Are there ways I can use this knowledge to increase the reach of my stories on the internet?

I can make sure my stories are engaging and contain information that are of interest to innovators, so they will spread them to hubs that will distribute them throughout the rest of the network. I can identify those innovators and the hubs. And, I can link my blog and web pages to like-minded websites as well as those with opposing views so the stories have a better chance of being read and are not stranded on an Internet island.