How Social Networks Think

I’ve had difficulty explaining my networking concepts without resorting to some exasperated cliche like, “that’s just how I think about it.”

Well, turns out that scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health are coming to the conclusion that that’s actually how the brain thinks.

Of course that’s how I think about it. It’s literally how I think…

In this “small world” architecture of the brain, clusters of cells link to their nearest neighbors with some neurons connecting to distant clusters. It’s the same phenomenon that social networking pioneer Duncan Watts of NYU and Steven Strogatz of Cornell previously showed emerges in the electric-power grid, relationships between professional actors, and the brain cells of worms.

Lucky for us, according to Strogatz and Watts, this kind of small world structure boosts the power and efficiency of the system.

Now to my difficulty: One of the challenges with “social networking” sites is that most are more correctly “social linking” sites.

Most of them are like bad parties where everyone is gathered in small circles with their backs to anyone new. They cluster into cliques. One of the benefits of a good hostess (other than attracting an interesting crowd) is her ability to introduce individuals to other individuals who are likely to share some kind of interest. To my knowledge, no social networking site is particularly good at making introductions and most do not even try. Ergo the need for a full time weaver.

Talented Networkweavers like Justin Krebs of Drinking Liberally are too few, granted, but the function he serves is vital. And now we learn it is actually the literal function of a vigorous mind.

Going back to that pulled quote: “the relationships between professional actors” is in reference to Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That’s just the new name for a law-like phenomena:

“The path length between any two randomly chosen people on the planet (N=6.5 billion) is six.” – Frigyes Karinthy, Chains, 1929

In other words: A knows B who knows C who knows D who knows E who knows F.

But in fact most social networks are not random. If A is friends with B and C, then B is friends with C, therefore triad closure generates highly clustered networks.

Which begs the question ‘How then is it possible that there are only six degrees of separation among billions (and billions) of people?’

The answer is A Few Long Ties. A few bridge ties between otherwise distant nodes creates “shortcuts” across the graph while preserving the clustering of a “small world” feel.

These Clinical Neurophysiological scientists would agree:

Each brain state goes through three steps, Freeman suggests. Synchronization first emerges among individual neurons. It then spreads to interconnected populations of neurons. Finally, large neural structures with specific duties begin to reverberate in unison on each side of the brain.

This approach to modeling brain function, which Freeman’s group has dubbed neuropercolation, incorporates a small-world network into other neural features. For instance, the model includes some nodes that depress the activity of surrounding nodes and others that excite their neighbors, much as the brain contains cells that specialize in inhibiting or arousing each other.

The whole article is pretty mind blowing. I’m glad to read that it’s just the way I think… about it.