Monday, May 19, 2008

Chain mail and effective flow

Network uber-guru Jon Kleinberg made headlines again this week: "Boffins question spread of email chain letters."

Before the newspaper headlines crossed my desk, Nathan Gilliatt at The Net-Savvy Executive saw the original paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gilliatt sums it up:

"A study published by the (US) National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that email, at least, follows a meandering path to large audiences, rather than a short path via online influencers. Tracing information flow on a global scale using Internet chain-letter data, by David Liben-Nowell and Jon Kleinberg (via IntelFusion). The choice of email as the channel guarantees the deep and narrow result."

Gilliatt goes on: "The more interesting question—and the more challenging—is to track the spread of information and opinions across the many channels people use, both online and offline. .... Picture water flowing downhill. If there's a wide channel available, water will use it. If there's a narrow channel, it will use that. Where both are available, it uses both. Information works the same way. The key is that water wants to flow downhill. To make this work with ideas, you need ideas that people want to communicate."

I like Gilliatt's take, but I am frustrated how terms like "deep and narrow," much like "strong tie" and "weak tie," are so weighted with multiple cultural interpretations that it's pretty much impossible to quote Kleinberg's use of "deep and narrow" without distorting his point.

My favorite part of Gilliat's post is his "more interesting question" and his watery metaphorical conclusion. Kleinberg speaks to this in his own way as well. In this 3-minute NSF video/interview, he concludes by saying that the broader implications of his research are "how to make the spread of news more effective," and "how to make public discourse and participation more effective."

To me, the even more interesting question is, "What is 'more effective' as it applies to news and public discourse & participation?" I would love to hear Rupert Murdoch's answer to that question. I also wonder what a poll of net-savvy executives would reveal. Gilliatt's watery closing invites us to reflect on another expert on effective flow, Lao Tsu:

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