Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Social Software

(published in www.dcetech.com/undertones edition 003)

(and Tata World magazine May 2006 edition)

Recent times have witnessed a deluge of ‘social sites’ on the Internet. And if you are reading this, in all probability you are a happy member of one of such websites as Orkut, Del.icio.us, Flickr, Hi5, Friendster, Gazzag…the list is endless.These community websites are helping people across the globe stay connected. Such is their popularity that it has been the cause behind yet another revolution on the Internet, by the name of ‘social software’.
Taking it to another level are websites like ‘Second Life’: a 3D virtual World entirely built and owned by its residents where people live alternate lives.

On the outside, this looks like a simple and easy way to find your friends online, send messages to them and stay in touch. But a deeper look at it reveals amazing realities. It is leading to radical social change. In fact many researchers and psychologists are busy studying the psychosis of online social networks.

Let us look at the situation as a scientist would do. From the Random Graph theory, we know that if you take a set of nodes, like say people, and link them randomly, you will end up with a complex graph where anyone can reach anyone. In fact, the theory of six degrees of separation says anyone on this earth can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. The theory was first proposed in
1929 by the Hungarianwriter Frigyes Karinthy in a short story called Chains. Later, this was proved to be true through interesting experiments done in 1967 by American sociologist Stanley Milgram and later by Duncan Watts.

Watts' research and the advent of the computer/information age, has opened up new areas of inquiry related to six degrees of separation in diverse areas of
network theory such as power grid analysis, disease transmission, graph theory, corporate communication, and computer circuitry.

On more general terms, being on a ‘social site’ is almost like having another set of peers altogether. It also means gaining greater acquaintance with people you barely know otherwise. Also, from the graph theory (and common sense), people having larger number of friends can grow their networks faster because it means so many more connections from each node. So, like it is usual, the rich keep getting richer!

The ‘growth’ of the network occurs due to sparsely linked clusters of people. Studies have been done on ‘strength of weak ties’ which basically imply that your two best friends will know each other well and similar connections would lead to higher ‘cohesion’ in the group or in other words higher chances of interlinking of people and more people knowing each other. This is basic idea behind the ‘Friend of Friend’ type connections, in case you are familiar with them.
More importantly, these click-connections would eventually have everyone on the internet connected to everyone else! This would transform the way people think of cultures different from their own; leading to a more cohesive and tolerant world: a global village.
Well, that does seem a little too far away right now but it wouldn’t be surprising if companies start giving interview calls right away on an orkut or a friendster!! Hi5 to that!

Written in winter of 2006

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