links for 2007-10-27

Is the world normal?

Last week, 24Hrs Newspaper published a story about Kinzin’s Facebook plugin Are You Normal? in their print and online magazine (see the great photo on the left, by Rob Kruyt, that accompanied the article). In the article, I’m quoted as saying that we’ve reached 90,000 people around the world. Thanks to the power of the network effect, as of this writing we’ve already passed 220,000 (from 184 countries!) and still going strong.

The point of this post is not to toot my own horn (at least, not only to do that :-), but to mention for your interest that the next set of survey questions we publish will be written in part by our user base. We’ve had questions submitted from Finland, Spain, Greece, Australia, and the UK so far. I’m very excited about this in particular. As with many things, when we’re talking about what’s “normal”, what we choose to measure is often as interesting as the results.

I’ll keep you posted as things progress…

You can’t have small without the big

Robert Scoble, in response to comments made by Evan Williams, creator of Twitter, at Web 2.0 asked the question: “why would anybody want a social network with only 10 friends? Seriously, don’t we already have this? It’s called a family.” Williams was talking about creative constraints. Limiting the scope of a social network (TuDiabetes), or limiting the size of a message (Twitter/SMS). I’m surprised, frankly, that Scoble would make such an obtuse comment. That I have lots of friends isn’t a reason to not use Facebook, and that my family exists says nothing about the modalities of communication I use to “groom” my relationships with them (to borrow a term from Robin Dunbar).

TuDiabetes for example is a small network (recently passing 1100 enthusiastic users), constrained in scope to the issues related to living with Diabetes. That it is small and constrained makes it more valuable, not less.

On the opposite end of the scale, The Economist recently published an article called “Social Graph-iti – There’s less to Facebook and other social networks than meets the eye“. I think it’s intended to be a cautionary article about “irrational exuberance” in the social networking space, along the lines of the recent New York Times article. There’s a lot that’s right in the Economist’s article, but I disagree with a few things. I think the author doesn’t understand the nature of social networks in this respect: we can and do belong to many at one time (as we have since before there were “humans” at all). Many of our social networks, in fact, are built on top of other, existing networks. For example, the management team I work with at Kinzin is a small network built out of my larger “business associates” network, which is part of my “everybody I know” network. It overlaps with my “close friends network” and my “co-workers” network, and so forth.

But unlike other networks, social networks lose value once they go beyond a certain size. “The value of a social network is defined not only by who’s on it, but by who’s excluded,” says Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley forecaster. Despite their name, therefore, they do not benefit from the network effect.

Mr. Saffo is both sucking and blowing, though, using “Social Network” to mean two things at the same time: the sum of all the users who are members of a particular social networking application, and all of the connections that each individual member has on that network.

My personal network doesn’t scale for all the reasons that I’ve written about previously in my commentary on Dunbar’s Number , but Facebook’s network doesn’t have the problem in the same way. It can contain every human in the world, and it doesn’t lose value for me (at least not the same rate or in the same way), because I only need it to be able to find everyone in the world who potentially could be my contact, I don’t need everyone to actually be my contact. It seems to me the Economist doesn’t account for the fact that we all have multiple overlapping networks, containing people that in the end all are drawn from the same pool, namely all the humans in the world. If I’m trying to maintain 10 different social networks (friends, family, business, acquaintances, etc.), it’s helpful to have the underlying system contain all the people in all the networks. So Facebook having 6B members helps me to better create the 10 person network that represents my geographically dispersed family.

Everyone’s trying to make it simple: “Irrational Exuberance!”, or “Everything’s Really Different!” The reality, as it usually is with humans, is much more subtle.

links for 2007-10-19

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Booksimreading: The Wealth of Networks…

As part of an effort to think more and do less, I just started reading a new book: “The Wealth of Networks; How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom“, by Yochai Benkler. What do I think so far, after the first 30 pages?

“At the beginning of the 21st century, we find our selves in the midst of a battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environment,” says Benkler. “What characterizes the networked information economy is that decentralized individual action plays a much greater role than it did or could have (before)”… “the removal of the physical constraints on effective information production has made human creativity and the economics of information itself the core structuring facts (of our economy and our society).” Just as the proprietors of the new printing presses of europe used their economic clout to gain independence from the church and aristocracy, people today, both individually and in groups, are exploiting the economics of the internet to take on massively ambitious projects. An important difference, though is that they are often taking on these projects just because they feel like it, and not for economic reasons.
Friendship Wheel Collage, by choconancy.
It’s this idea that first caused me to pick up this book, actually. The amplification of the individual human as a social creature, as opposed to a “market actor”. This is a major change in thinking for some. Capital is less important than it has been in the past. Groups of individuals, acting from motivations unrelated to economics, can often organize themselves more quickly and effectively than a corporation can. I find this idea exhilarating. More as I read along…

What’s "Normal" anyway?

The Normal Theatre, by K2D2vaca

Our Facebook adventure sure has been interesting. In the week since we launched, we’ve had over 15,000 people do our surveys (Update: three days later, and we’re now over 22,000…) and discover just how (ab)normal they are. One curious thing I’ve noticed while discussing “Are You Normal?” with people is that, at least among the people I talk to, most people assume that their normalcy rating will be very low. In fact, being “abnormal” seems to be what they’re hoping for. The thing is, the system only calculates your rating based on what everybody else said, so if everybody’s a bit strange, well… that’s what’s normal. It’s what I really like about this application – the community decides what’s normal, not us. We could have used some standard psychological test and given a stock answer, but everybody deserved to be judged by a jury of their peers, don’t you think?

In case you’re wondering: I’m 23% normal (and falling).

Normal, by Binderboy

Which brings up the other interesting side-effect of the way we calculate the answers: that your rating can and does change over time. As more people answer, the most common set of answers changes slightly, effecting your rating against that “standard”. To take advantage of this interesting side-effect of our rating system, a new feature we’re planning is the ability to check your rating against specific groups – your own friends, for example. And when Facebook launches their new “contact grouping” feature, you may be able to compare yourself against particular sets of people – work, family, whatever. Let me know if you think this feature would be really interesting to you – if enough people call for it, I’ll get the development team to move it up the schedule.

Some tidbits, gleaned from the results so far:

  • 68% of people answering the surveys are very concerned about the environment, or are taking action to do something about climate change. 9% say they’re not concerned, and a full 23% don’t take either position, which is interesting.
  • 9% describe themselves as conservative, 25% as liberal and the rest (65% or so) describe themselves as non-partisan or none of the above.
  • 25% think that a family should have only a mommy and a daddy.
  • 41% of parents lied, saying that having children hasn’t effected their sex life ;-), the rest need to get away for the weekend.
  • 45% wish that their kids knew more about their family history and culture

There will be a new survey in the next day or so (Are you a normal Facebook user?), and some UI improvements, so stay tuned.

Cross-posted at the Kinzin Blog.

links for 2007-10-03

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