Posted by: Ben | June 11, 2010

Social Network Liquidity

Playing with some new ideas.

Victor Turner's book, with cover art representing social network connections

I’ve been studying the news cycle pretty deeply, from how tweets lead to flash reports which lead to news blurbs which lead to breaking news chyrons which lead to fleshed out Associated Press/Agence France Presse/Reuters stories, and then ensuing blog overview/granular commentary and re-posting.

I’ve also started reading my grandfather Victor Turner’s famous work, “Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life”, which discusses his ethnographic work of seeing how different villages use social drama to thicken community ties and play out deep human cultural needs and instincts.  His book’s cover design has an immediately recognizable influence from social network diagramming.

Real Life vs. Internet

Most people see a huge rift between their “real” life and online life.  The usual complaint is that the online world deprecates friendships and relationships to meaningless online gestures which are not as meaningful as meeting face-to-face.  For the “real” world, the complaint from those in the online world is that the real world does not offer enough data, information, or relevance on its own to be efficient.  Why not layer on more data?

There is also a massive conflict between modernity and tradition.  This is seen most visibly through religiously-justified social morality debates, about abortion, science vs. faith, the permanence of marriage and the utility of sexual practices outside of marriage and religion, etc.  But there are other examples, as I read in Stefan Tanaka’s book, “New Times in Modern Japan”, a book about the Meiji Revolution’s imposition of a western calendar on Japan, which caused massive upheaval in a culture dependent on its own calendar for all its rituals, traditions, and even business meetings.

As an aside, a lot of people say that Al-Qaeda is a traditionalist organization fighting western modernity.  I would disagree.  Clearly they use the cutting edge of technology and our understanding of culture and adaptation to bring new followers into their fold and to kill our soldiers.  What I feel they are fighting against is, and always has been, western foreign policy.  They are defending their Muslim culture and land.  Maybe that is not something you agree with, or think they are right to feel, but that is what motivates them and what motivates newcomers, at the core.


I want to approach these issues as a matter of time.  Progressivism for humankind as a whole is moving in a linear path (although it certainly retrogrades and stagnates in the short-term at times) — wouldn’t it be fair to say that we can assume eventually racial tensions will decrease as cultures intermix more over generations?  Is it fair to say that stigmas are being removed around women as independent actors even in the most patriarchal societies and gays and other marginalized groups are eventually going to be protected as reasonably equal citizens?  Stigmas and taboos will exist in some form (we need someone to blame) but in terms of “race” and “gender”, I think a lot of today’s biases will be rendered obsolete.

So we’re moving along a slow path to a destination where some of the parts we can already imagine.  Some people on the journey are moving faster than others.  How does this actually look?

Geography:  Politics & Culture

I see geography as the slowest mover.  It is very hard to change a geographical community’s culture.   For example, France will always be France, and somehow it will always have different attitudes than Germans, who are neighbors with them.  Their cultural DNA is just different.  Different geographical areas become known for different things.  We associate Silicon Valley with start-ups, engineers with lots of money and lust for risk, we associate Manhattan with finance and a maelstrom of cultural creativity.  Sure, these communities can be utterly destroyed (and are, regularly, in insecure areas of the world), but they are VERY hard to destroy completely.

Civilization 4's culture borders. French cultural influence is represented by the purple border, forming a "culture bridge" across the water channel. In Civ4, a city's influence can cause other civ's nearby cities to switch allegiance.

Thus, for foreign policy/international relations (IR) types, knowing history and geopolitics are crucial towards understanding professional IR tradecraft.  One of the most influential books I read was George Friedman’s “The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century”.  His geopolitical focus on the world reveals inflexible rules of the world we live in, which include Iran being an inescapable regional power in the Middle East, Russia as being perpetually insecure along its borders and hinterlands, and the US enjoying fairly safe borders, access and coastlines for the two key oceans and access to natural resources.

Culture/geography dominates discussion, even online. From

Certain geographies, geopolitical world views would argue, lead to certain kinds of cultures flourishing.  They lead to different attitudes and philosophies.  In this way, cultures can be seen as unchanging in their core, although some more readily adopt modernity or change.

Law/Relationship With Government

The next slowest mover I’d define would be the law.  Changes in regime can lead to massive changes in the largest of civilizations (see Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution), and certain laws can lead to inescapable economic realities (see Sarbanes-Oxley, the Communications Decency Act  (Section 230 leading to a boom in blogging).  Corporations in the US spend a fortune on lobbying precisely because they know that spending a little money now to get a law crafted in a way beneficial to them could lead to decades of easy growth.  As an example, look at how corn subsidies and sugar tariffs in the US along with cheap oil imports led to high fructose corn syrup additives in all foods we eat while sugar was relegated to an utter luxury.

The Internet

I’m skipping over a lot of movers here but I know this blog post will spiral out of control and I think that the Internet has been the huge game changer for human civilization.  The striking reduction of transaction costs to communication and knowledge-sharing and time lags has resulted in true ability to crowdsource and communicate in real-time across large spaces.

Now stories in peoples’ daily lives instantly get polled up on reddit or Huffington Post, so that if BP is restricting the media from taking video of an oil-spilled beach, the internet learns about it pretty quickly.  The internet also knows about other things quickly, like Tiger Woods backing in to a tree to get away from his angry wife, Brittany Murphy dying of an overdose, etc.  In other words, the role of mainstream media as an editor of what the top stories might be was diluted with millions of new editors who considered far more topics as being the “top news”.

Much of the news is useless, true.  Check out, an organization which attempts to look at the news and figure out which stories will have been seen as huge developments far into the future.  Most of the most important stories come out of scientific research.  Below is a TED Talk explaining what The Long News considers important:

At the fringes and margins of the internet are where the cool stuff is happening and where lightning quick news is being developed.

The internet is a well-spring of innovation.  Instead of people being limited to their geographies and the people who share their environment, they can go online and share with those of similar creative interests and skillsets, thus meaning there is a better, tighter matching of people online than off.  So you can see awesome collaborative projects like Linux and Wikipedia and all the stuff that is fed into disseminators like reddit or digg or Twitter that would never exist in pure meatspace.

Agents in The Matrix detected anomalies through their earpieces

For news, people are taking photos and tweeting about what they see in their worlds, so as soon as there’s a public installation closure because of a police incident, people are talking about it.  Metaphorically, this is like in the Matrix when one of the Agents puts his fingers up to his earpiece because one of the plugged-in humans somewhere is freaking out about an abnormality somewhere in the world.   While the privacy debate is important along with the role of government in keeping people safe, for this scenario I’m more interested in how much technology and the internet have aided us in being able to communicate our realities instantly to each other in the form of tweeting or texting about emergencies/news.

Let’s Merge the Real World and the Digital World

That was a lot of set-up for what I really wanted to talk about.   What is coming is augmented reality, where the real world will be intimately wedded with the online world, so our “real” view will be augmented with data layers showing nearby waypoints, markers where our friends are checking in, where nearby swarms of people are, where public safety incidents are taking place, historical hot zones where crimes have taken place, and perhaps cooler stuff like paths for augmented reality questing (follow a path in your data view that takes you to a quest destination).

The contradictions and weaknesses of either world will be attacked by designers and hackers and capitalists who want to combine the two worlds.

Will this mean that the temporality of the real world will change?  I talked earlier about how slow cultures, geographies, and laws are to change, but that is because there are such high transaction costs there.

If you are born into a rural area with a set of classmates who will eventually graduate school with you, marry you, become your lifelong friends, and all remain in the area your whole lives, while you drive everywhere in your city or village, then the transaction costs are high — the chances are that you won’t receive lots of creative input that you might in a city, and you won’t meet too many people with the exact creative interests you have.  This lends itself better towards a community that values building families and having stable lives (microfamilies).

If you are born into or move into a city (or even a slum), you are constantly bombarded with change, new people coming in or leaving, creative inputs, daily lives where you see hundreds of people a day, etc.  The costs of communicating are lower because you can walk not more than a few blocks to get food, conversation, drink, sex, business.  Driving is less needed, meaning your chances for interaction increase.  Things that impact one person in a rural area might only affect that one person.  In a city, any change is likely to affect multiple people.

So think about the mathematical delta — the amount of change — for different layers of civilization.  The delta for geopolitics, law, government is usually really low.  The delta for anything internet-related is extremely high.

Sometimes there are problems as we try to mediate between the two.  We try to hold reputations and identities that are life-lasting, but often the world we interact with daily exists in a Twitter-like state of constant updates and a lot of irrelevant information.

This is why I consider digital reputation collaboration to be so important for a sustainable cultural future.

Cultural Memory

At Uluru in Alice Springs, Australia, the Anangu Aboriginal tribe used to take its boys and girls to separate caves where they learned how to be adults.

Cultural memory has traditionally been passed along verbally from parent to child, from community to its children, from rumors, old wives’ tales, conspiracy theories, propaganda.  This of course lends itself to high levels of re-interpretation, revisionism, and selective memory.  Arguably this is one of mankind’s strengths, since we are at times fickle, emotional, destructive, unreasonable, and blatantly hurtful, but it also makes us human and passionate and willing to do things outside ourselves.

Layering digital reputations onto our community-held reputations will challenge a lot of our conventions and self-images.  In some ways we will be presented with the cold hard truth of numbers.  In other ways we may use the data to deceive ourselves into thinking something false is actually true.  But the ability to log our lives, crunch the data, and compare it with each other, to see what kinds of people end up being successful in different ways for different paths…that is some really deep, powerful stuff that only our species’ best mentors, teachers, academics, and leaders have been able to express to us in ways we can understand.

Crowdsourcing reputation will be akin to the internet’s crowdsourcing of information, or Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing of knowledge.  It will induce the Nick Carrs and Evgeny Morozovs of the world to write scathing excoriations of free-wheeling privacy slayers.  It will cause grouchy old columnists to write ham-handed pieces on how kids these days just don’t understand.  It will challenge cultures to become more accepting of diversity of practice (just imagine if religious leaders knew what their followers REALLY did).  There is a lot of potential for abuse and gaming and problematic behavior, but there’s no escaping that crowdsourcing reputation will eventually happen and that the good will outweigh the bad.

The technology is getting there, where transaction costs for social networking are becoming cheaper, and where our own data is becoming available to us in formats we can manipulate (thank you Tim Berners-Lee for pushing for linked data).  Social transaction liquidity is increasing across time and space, which will lead to a more networked world that requires new types of reputation not controlled or siloed by governments or businesses.  We are not quite yet there, but it is coming quickly.

Other Thoughts

On the continuum of movers, I can see a reputation system as being highly problematic towards the status quo.

After all, you really can’t change geographical culture very quickly.  Already some  economists are pushing for not just free trade, but free labor movement, as the only way to allow capital and labor to properly aggregate themselves in the clusters they need is to allow free movement of people across borders.  This is unlikely to happen very soon.

Governmental regimes and legal systems are likely to resist data, even if it’s undoubtedly true.  You can see it already in development economics and behavioral economics, where the newer studies show that human behaviors can be highly irrational and defensive in light of trust/paranoia.  Overwhelming evidence to the contrary becomes a weapon that a status quo will fight against.

On the plus side, I think having a system that lets any user join, and lets any user create a profile for any other user until it’s claimed, will lead to census-takers and human rights advocates to catalog every person on the planet, and that can have powerful implications towards giving even the most nameless, invisible person on the planet a voice and an identity.  I’m hoping that an extensive system will stop people from disappearing from the face of the earth.  I’m hoping that, if anything else, the major constituent to benefit will be the individual.


  1. There is definately a lot to learn about this
    topic. I really like all the points you have made.

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