[originally posted on Aug 20, 2006. I dug out of the archives because of the Knight News Challenge on Networks, which refers to Reed’s Law. It’s still topical reading.]
Back in 2003, at my old, old blog, Timing, I wrote a post, that laid out the basis of Reed’s Law, which is now relevant because of the of the recent IEEE Metcalfe’s Law brouhaha. Fred Wilson recently noted that he wished that Metcalfe had enlarged his arguments to include Reed’s Law. So I unearthed this from the time vaults:
First of all, this seems to all have grown from David Reed’s “Sneaky Exponential” piece, where he introduces Reed’s Law, and contrasts the various stages of value as the network grows. I wrote about this at some length in a recent tissue of Message.
Finding the Value of the Network: Communities
The conventional wisdom about the value of a communication network is embodied in Metcalfe’s Law, named after one of the founders of the Internet. He said that the value of a communications network grows as the square of the number of people using it, or 2 to the Nth. Metcalfe’s Law is focused on the point-to-point, pair-wise communications between individuals. It is a linear model of growth.
But this model seems wrong, and does not account for the non-linear effects of social groups. David Reed is a well-known exponent of the observation that the value of a communication network grows with the number of groups it supports.
“Reed’s law is the assertion of David P. Reed that the utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.
The reason for this is that the number of possible sub-groups of network participants is 2N, where N is the number of participants.
This grows much more rapidly than either
so that even if the utility of groups being available to be joined is very small on a per-group basis, eventually the network effect of potential group membership can dominate the overall economics of the system. (Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org)
- the number of participants, N, or
- the number of possible pair connections, N(N+1)/2 (which follows Metcalfe’s law)
Stated another way, any communication network’s value is best estimated by the number of groups that exist in the population of users. The value of a network like the Internet, Reed is telling us, can not be effectively measured by the number of financial transactions it can support, or the number of messages being sent through its millions of routers, or even the number of people using it at any time. The only reasonable way to measure its value is to count the number of groups that it supports, or so he asserts.
Accelerating Collaboration: Communities of Purpose
While its wonderful that Internet-enabled fans of the newest heavy metal band can swap gossip, MP3s and revealing photos, and this may enrich western civilization in some way, it may seem a long way from the factory floor or the pressing realities in the CEO’s suite. But it is exactly this sort of social interaction that forms all groups, even the most practical and purposeful, like those within the enterprise.
Turning Reed’s Law into a tool to enhance value for the enterprise may seem to some to be a bit out there, a bit too new age, like bringing in a Feng Shui geomancer to avoid building the new corporate headquarters in the wrong orientation to the Cosmos. But it is simply pragmatic. Obviously, work gets down by groups, Obviously, you want to harness the value of closer, more productive relationships with partners, suppliers, and customers. And, yes, it is becoming obvious that any significant enterprise performance improvements will require interactions with people – and applications – outside the enterprise.
Tim Oren’s final observations — that people generally contribute significantly to around 2.5 groups, and that groups hit size limits (the Dunbar 150 person max rule) — return to the core theme of social groups and network value. Size does matter. People can only meaningfully be involved with a limited number of groups, and groups lose group cohesion after some ceiling is reached.
But the value of the network is a function of the number of groups supported, even if the membership of each group is bounded. The flexibility associated with group transience is an additional factor — so it’s not just a static equation, its a non-linear flow equation. All of the laws that Reed compares — Sarnoff, Metcalfe, and Reed — are statically defined.
In a recent report I wrote for Cutter (now in production) I argue that real-time groups create value for companies as an extension or corollary of Reed’s Law, which I humbly have dubbed Boyd’s Law. Ahem.
As companies seek to increase their individual responsiveness and decrease the impacts of volatility in their markets, they will increase their synchronous communications with partners, but the net effect will be an increase in asynchronous operations of the meta-enterprise.
This seeming paradox is simply explained. A real time enterprise will have more frequent communication with its partners – passing information from application to application, or conducting real time communication between members of real time communities – and as a result, the latency in information transfer decreases.
This means that companies in the meta-enterprise are free to act on this lower latency information earlier, increasing overall performance across the meta-enterprise. Or put another way, decreasing latency in the individual communication events translates into higher probabilities of increased parallelism in the overall network. This emergent property of increased real time communication in networks is exactly the value creation David Reed was getting at.
In human terms, and leaving the queuing theory aside, this value increase grows from the power of social groups. It’s not quasi-mystical chaos theory – it’s just practical.
So, you have to look at other factors, not just size, or even who is a member, but things like the tools being used to communicate in order to understand the components of value arising from social interaction.
And today, in 2006, it’s even stranger to see some IEEE article attempting to peg the value of a network on some sort of stock market economics, as opposed to the utility of the network in practice: the value created for individuals, groups, and the network denizens as a whole.
[And today, in 2012, I am totally unsurprised that folks are still referring back to statically defined rules instead of something like what I was poking at in 2003: Boyd’s Law. I would now define it this way, taking the perspective of the value of a person in a social network:
The value of any new node in a network — and in social networks, a node is a person — can be characterized as the increase in network-wide parallelism caused by the connections the new node establishes.
Nine years later.]
Venessa Miemis is trying to get a group of ‘change agents’ to collaborate, and is finding it hard going:
Venessa Miemis, How Will We Collaborate if We Can’t Trust Each Other?
The next few years are going to be defined by a culture of learning and interactivity that involves more trust, and so naturally, more risk. If we’re going to go beyond just sharing links with each other to actually *helping* each other, working together, experimenting, prototyping, and adapting to changing circumstances, *we* have to first change in order to make that possible.
I’m in the process of experimenting with this firsthand, bringing people together into an online collaboratory space, and I’ll admit – it’s not easy. We’ve got a group of ‘change agents’ who want to do things together, to form ad-hoc teams around short-term projects, make something cool happen and improve our world and our lives — but how to begin?
Each of us is a free agent, delicately riding the edge of chaos and uncertainty as we try to pave our own path. Each of us likes the sound of a peer-to-peer culture, a transition from scarcity to abundance, a move from a transactional economy to a relational economy (ht jerry michalski), and a redefinition of value and wealth. Each of us sees the promise of a new way of working, living, and Being.
And yet there is still fear.
Are you gonna steal my idea? Are you gonna follow through with your commitments? Are you gonna take the credit? Am I gonna get screwed — yet again?
My question to you is: How do we transcend this, surrender, and take the next leap of faith?
Assuming you are curious enough about the possibility to find out how it could work, what is the critical component that’ll inspire you to jump?
For me, it all comes down to trust.
Not just blind trust in everyone else, but trust in myself and a commitment to move past fear and into action. Lead by example and see who wants to come with me. Become aware of who I’m connected to and choosing carefully with whom I want to build things. Take small risks together so we can gain momentum. Start having some Collective Epic Wins.
I think Venessa is trying to do something that’s very hard: she’s trying to get a group to form a collective, with a shared set of principles and shared goals. And she’s right. To get there you have to build deep trust: a polite way to say that the folks in the collective have to sort out the politics involved. In general that can take months, even when the participants share a great deal in common in education, background, and temperament.
But why form a collective? As she points out, it’s risky. If you want to build things, you can define a small project to test some ideas, and form a Hollywood-style project team to accomplish it. Instead of trying to collaborate on a big, wholly integrated vision of the future — where everything has to be discussed and agreed on before the first thing gets done — just cooperate on something fast, small, and low risk.
The way of the future is cooperation, not collaboration.
Among other reasons cooperation merely requires swift trust, a well-researched human universal. People are capable in some circumstances of relaxing their general desire to establish deep trust — that time-consuming, political practice —and will simply adopt a role in a project, and suspend their disbelief about other’s motives, etc. This is a way to get folks to suspend their innate concerns about trust and control. In these contexts, people start with the presumption that the others in the project are professionals and that everyone will focus on doing their jobs as best as the can. A lot of communication is needed to keep it all working, but much less than in deep trust organizations, like the conventional enterprise.
This is how freelancers generally work, and it’s the way that cities work.
But Venessa and her friends are involved in forming a collective, and there is no short cut for them. They will need to build deep trust, and establish processes and practices, and politics to manage them.
My recommendation to Venessa was and still is to take the short cut, though. Define some constrained projects, with more modest goals and defined time frames, and work on them with a few others. It might lead to deep trust, but even if it doesn’t you can still be working, making headway, and maybe some money, too.
Me, I’m trying to work on a few interesting projects with some smart people, but I am not pushing them into one group and trying to create a way that all of us can be involved in everything. I’m going to work with Teresa DiCairano of Intervista on ‘ambient innovation’, which is our term for social, bottom-up innovation. I’m going to work with Claude Théoret of Nexalogy exploring the science underlying social networks, and trying to make that more accessible to the average person. And I am going to push ahead with my analysis in work media — the use of streaming social media tools in the enterprise — and I will be pulling a few others into that project with me, too. But these will be three discrete projects, with non-overlapping groups of participants. I am not making everything, everything.
I am trying to remain liquid, loosely connected to others, heading the same general direction. I am specifically not trying to solidify relationships — build deep trust — before getting something done with others.
So, my general recommendation is that people should favor loose connectives — social networks with less tight ties — that rely only on swift trust. If and when you establish deep trust with individuals, perhaps during short-term, swift trust-based projects, then perhaps your can form a collective, where the principles shared common, long-term purpose.
But such collectives are not a higher form of human solidarity that we should aspire to, and are not what we have to build in order to get big things done. On the contrary. An increasing proportion of professional work is being performed by freelancers, who live in a short-term project based economy. Why should I have to agree on a long term strategic vision about the future of work media just to work with other researchers on the state of that industry, for example? Or to take the example of the city, all the stores on Main Street do not have to agree to not compete with each other, or to pool their profits, or even to paint their storefronts the same color.
The costs of deep trust are too high, in general, for what they return. This is one reason that work is changing so quickly. Companies are loosening their hold on employees, providing them more autonomy, relaxing the requirements for deep trust: becoming more like cities and less like traditional armies, with everyone is made to march in step, and pointed in the same direction, all the time.
I have a feeling that Wendy Lea is responding to the cacaphony of companies claiming to be social, perhaps egged on by the appearance of the Dachis Group’s Social Business Index, and she uses a wonderful term: social washing. I presume this is based on greenwashing, where companies try to make themselves seem more green than they actually are.
Wendy Lea, Social Business: You’re Doing It All Wrong
The distinction between being social and socialwashing isn’t academic – it’s the difference between gaining and losing value. With everyone clamoring to embrace social, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the next big thing. Social business can have a tremendous effect on all aspects of a company: it can lower support costs and call volume, act as a powerful customer acquisition tool, and inform the product team, helping to align them with what customers really want.
But most companies won’t see these results overnight. They aren’t structured in a way that enables them to benefit from social across operational functions, and most enterprise software applications aren’t built to process unstructured customer conversations and integrate them into traditional enterprise back-end systems.
If anything, Lea doesn’t go far enough. Business will require a rethink from the ground up to become social, not just a few tweaks and new hires in PR and customer support organizations.
Lea touches on the real barriers to adoption of social business thinking when she says that ‘most businesses aren’t structured in a way that enables them to benefit from social across operational functions’, which means in practice that the communication paths in most businesses — who says what to whom — have been devised around business processes not social networks.
Stowe Boyd, The Rise Of Networks, The End Of Process
Today, the social web is happening, and acting like a solvent on these business constructs: not just superficially, or metaphorically, but at the very core of industrial beliefs. Note: this isn’t just a bunch of humanist rhetoric: the social society is exploding, and new ways of interaction that were unaffordable or impossible before are not only cheap and possible but being adopted widely because of a long list of reasons, not the least of which is simplicity and effectiveness. People are thronging on social sites like Facebook and Twitter because they are a straightforward way to stay connected with others, and this in turn shapes our worldview.
As these new realities percolate in the open web and in the new web-influenced culture, people carry these experiences into the world of business. Indirectly, based on their experience in the open web, which leads them to consider how the social tools could work in the business context. And more directly, some pioneers are dragging social tools into the business context, and seeing where it all goes.
And some, a few, are trying to think through a new model for business, reconstructed around what we have learned in the open web, balanced with what we know about the conduct of business. A new hybrid, intentionally devised to keep the best of the old (or at least the parts that will still work) and fuse that with the new, social models that dominate the web revolution.
From a social viewpoint, the architecture of business seems all wrong. People aren’t really designed to do one thing, like a cog in a watch. They have various relationships with other people, and through these relationships they have influence on the work going on all around them. They are not alone, like a moth in a bell jar. We are not alone, in our work. Even the most repetitive of work — screwing bolts on an assembly line, or delivering the mail — happens in the context of other people, and is made more valuable by their exertions.
Increasingly, people’s work is being viewed as a shared aspect of social relations. Time is a shared space, where we cooperate toward shared ends.
One casualty of this large-scale shift in business doctrine may be the hallowed business process. The notion of a process — a defined series of steps in the production of goods or the delivery of services — subordinates individuals to the their roles in the process.
For decades, business planners have made a distinction between repetitive, lock-step processes, where very little variability is involved (think pharmacy), and more free-form, unstructured processes where a higher degree of variability is expected (think emergency room). Taking the abstraction of a process out of the world of chemistry, manufacturing, and logistics, and treating the people involved as so many chemicals, gears, or trucks seemed like a good idea in the past, but is not going to be workable, going forward.
We will have to devise a new, richer way to think about people’s interactions — via social networks — and our connection to mechanical processes and devices. In effect, we will need to model work with two layers, one where people are communicating with each other in a very fluid and flexible way, and another where machinery communicates with us and other machinery in less fluid ways. […]
More importantly, the customers in the emerging social world will have new expectations about their role in business ‘processes’ and may be significantly less willing to be treated like pigeons pecking at levers in exchange for pellets.
So, I agree with Lea that businesses have a long way to go, and more companies will be involved in socialwashing: building a veneer of social networks over a process-oriented organization. However superficial that may seem, however, it may be a necessary first step. It might be like the joke about getting directions in Maine, where the local tells the tourist, ‘There’s no way to get there from here: you have to go somewhere else, first’.
It might be necessary to experiment with sociality at a superficial level to allow people to bend their minds around the profound difference of loosely connected networks as opposed to tightly connected processes. So we should accept the socialwashing as inevitable and formative, like living through your teenage years.
Fascinating distinction between collaborating and cooperating, the parallel notion that collectives collaborate, while ‘connectives’ cooperate:
We often use these words interchangeably, but they represent fundamentally different ways of contributing to a group and each comes with its own dynamics and power structures that shape groups in different ways…
When collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.
Like an orchestra which follows a script everyone has agreed upon and each musician plays their part not for its own sake but to help make something bigger.
When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet common goals.
The logic here is “If you help me I’ll help you” and it allows for the spontaneous kind of participation that fuels peer-to-peer systems and distributed networks. If an orchestra is the sound of collaboration, then a drum circle is the sound of cooperation.
For centuries collaboration has powered most of our society’s institutions.
This is true of everything from our schools to our governments where we have worked together through consensus to build systems of increasing complexity.
But today, cooperation is fuelling most of the disruptive innovations of our time.
In virtually every aspect of our culture, the old guard is being replaced by cooperative, self organizing, distributed systems.
Collectives are part of the machinery of the previous era. They give priority to the group over the individual and encourage members to adopt a joint identity that unites them around their shared goal.
A connective doesn’t give priority to the group or the individual but instead supports and encourages both simultaneously. There’s no shared sense of identity in a connective because each member is busy pursuing their own goals.
Collectives are breeding grounds for hierarchies and power struggles.
Even with the best intentions, collaboration often encourages pyramids of power and authority. The higher up the pyramid you are in a collective, the more freedom you have to carve out your own individual identity and direct the group’s efforts towards your own goals. The conductor is famous while the tuba player remains unknown. But if the tuba player gets up to leave someone needs to step in to replace her.
Connectives are self-organizing and self-sustaining.
No master architect, conductor, or blueprint is needed. You can join or leave a drum circle at any time and the beat goes on with or without you.
Wikipedia is a collective. Delicious is a connective.
Hence the brutal hierarchies and old school power structures that govern Wikipedia. Delicious on the other hand doesn’t have the same problems; No consensus is needed because people aren’t collaborating. Each user is free to use Delicious for whatever they want.
Since connectives support individual goals, they create value even when a group is small and growing.
Wikipedia is pretty much useless as an encyclopedia until it contains thousands of articles which requires a huge collaborative effort. But the very first person who used Delicious was able to get value from the system right away. As the system became more popular new kinds of value emerged.
By linking selfish yet common acts together, connectives are able to empower individuals while creating new kinds of group value.
Moving your bookmarks from your own computer to Delicious enhances their value because you can access them from anywhere, but the kind of value you get from them stays pretty much the same. Once bookmarks are shared and interconnected though, an entirely new kind of value is created … one that transcends the original act of bookmarking and yet fuels it at as well; bookmarks are no longer just about remembering but also about finding. And this illustrates the real power of connectives: they’re able to support individuals while encouraging the emergence of new kinds of group value.
Nature is a connective not a collective.
In a forest there is no script that all of the organisms follow. There is no conductor. Yet there are countless levels of interdependence and cooperation at work in which selfish goals intersect to sustain each other and create larger, unpredictable, organic patterns.
Networks are fundamentally natural and organic processes. Although you wouldn’t know that by looking at the corporately controlled internet we have today. Today’s internet inherited the political and technical baggage of broadcast era networks whose mechanical architecture is completely out of tune with emerging logic of our connected culture.
Connective is a synonym for network in a sense, but I like the opposition to collective, and it relates to the distinction I have long made between group and ‘grouping’.
Stowe Boyd, Facebook Groups versus Groupings
Groups — addressable collections of people who become associated by invitation from the group’s owner, and who have symmetric relationships with each other — are as old as the web. You have them in Yahoo Groups, Flickr, and all over the place.
One of the most interesting and exciting advances on the social web have been ‘groupings’, where people are spontaneously members of free-form and ad hoc associations without invitation.
For example, all those people that follow me on Twitter are in effect members of a Stowe Boyd grouping. Or all of those people that use a given tag, or follow it (I wish Twitter would implement that, by the way). Or all the people that have liked the same artist in Ping.
Consider Last.fm’s ‘virtual neighborhoods’, based on people’s music play. Wandering around in my Last.fm neighborhood introduced me to more great music in a few hours than all the people I know had played for me in years.
If I were only connected to people on Twitter that I already knew — that I invited to be friends with me — my world would be much much smaller.
Don’t get me wrong: groups have their place, especially when privacy or secrecy is needed, as in many business situations, or when planning a surprise party. But openness, transparency, and serendipity are more interesting as general principles than closedness, opaqueness, and knownness.
And now I should make the case that groupings are connectives, more about cooperation and less about about collaboration, which is more the province of collectives or groups.