Networks and proximity.

Did you ever think about how beguilingly simple LinkedIn is? It follows the basic rubric that every 4th grader knows -- we're friends, and he's a friend of yours, so in a sense your friend becomes my friend too.  Facebook isn't different in nature, in fact it even grabbed the word "friend" creating along the way the new English participle "friending".  But Facebook is less explicit in the value it assigns to the links that build the network of friends. With Facebook the goal is to have the platform to express yourself to an audience, whereas with LinkedIn, in some senses the goal is the network itself.

Now, look at your LinkedIn network.  How many of them are in the same city as you?  Indeed, going through your connections and mapping them spatially, would the greatest amount of activity, the greatest amount of connectivity, appear closest to where you physically are?  Why is that?  What role does proximity play in the creation of a social network? 

This question was being swatted back and forth by me and Quinton Zondervan like a ping pong ball over a net stretched across two coffee cups.  Its related question -- what role does proximity play in the capacity of a social network to expand? -- was the real object of our desire, the true set point we sought, but it seemed impossible to answer the second one without first getting a handle on the first. 

Suffice it to say that Quinton and I both assume that proximity in the relational tie increases the strength of the relational tie and that the strength of the connection diminishes as distance increases.  In other words, closer is stronger.

How and why this is relevant comes clearer in an example from the real-world of urban development.  There is much talk, presumably accurate and measurable, of the importance of MIT to the development of Kendall Square.  In my imagining, this means that social networks get created at the university and then expand into the neighboring area of Kendall Square, like little arms of energy shooting out from the main orb (for some reason, I can't help but think of this like some cartooney depiction of a solar flare - at least what my mind imagines a cartoon of a solar flare to look like).  These little explosions of energy seed an environment that is highly creative and highly innovative.  It is the Ur-situation, much like those Walt Disney cartoon movies from the 1940s where the lightening bolt strikes the muck and mire of a swampy marsh on prehistoric earth and a single-celled organism springs to life.

Now, let's fast forward this eco-experiment a generation (roughly equivalent to 30 years).  With innovation flourishing there exists a high degree of bio-diversity in this innovation ecosystem.  Unfortunately, it means that the bigger predators recognize a food source, and they start lumbering our way.  Say a Microsoft decides to locate in Kendall Square, to tap into the tremendous talent pool that exists here.  Or a Google.  Or a Novartis.  In these instances, they are trying to appropriate the entire network already developed at MIT, lock stock and barrel.  They are not interested in fostering innovation.  They are interested in capturing the entirety of it and they will use their gullet to digest it whole.  Innovation decreases as mono-cultures replace the highly complex and diverse environments that precede them. 


  1. Sam, I think that's a stark way of looking at it, and I'm not sure its wholly right. I think that you are right about the glow emanating from MIT, but the aspect of that glow that draws other innovators (big companies and startups) is more like the church lights that draw in the congregation on New Year's eve. It is a warm, attractive glow and it casts legitimacy and an innovative mood across the whole area. It is not necessarily the case though that that glow maps tightly to the map of personal connections. I generally find that people in the innovation community surrounding MIT are better connected with each other than people within the MIT community. The image might be more that MIT is a honey pot with bees settled on it (the MIT folks), and more bees swarming around it. The swarming bees (the startups, big-company innovators, and service providers) often move in wider circles, and connect more broadly than those sitting on the honey. And so it is the swarming bees that actually make the connections that lead to all of us getting a taste of that honey. I'm talking about people like angel investors who pour small amounts of money into early but good new ideas, serial entrepreneurs who know how to identify a good idea and run with it and turn it into a 500-person employer, etc. The corporations are playing a very important role, because they are also picking up good ideas and technology (honey) from the university, and are spreading it to the rest of the world in the form of products. Google's Books project, based in Cambridge, is a great example of that, or Akamai's application of algorithms for information dissemination, developed at MIT, to make the global internet faster. The "good" is in the dissemination, and while startups and corporations do it differently, both can be very impactful. And at the end of the day, the host, the hive, MIT, benefits deeply from the swarm around it. It is the swarm that nourishes it, and provides the rational for the federal funding that powers its research. The swarm are symbiotes, not parasites.

  2. Thank you Tim for these comments. I will confess that I am somewhat deferential to you and others who work in this world on a daily basis, but (there's always a "but"), I am also skeptical of a virtuous circle that nourishes all in perfect harmony. I like the image of bees. They may in fact be the right nature-based metaphor for the relationship between MIT and the surrounding innovation community (I chose the rise of the dinosaurs from opening section of the 1939 classic film Fantasia which perhaps says a lot about me), but there are undeniably constraints within this ecosystem. Land is one. There is only so much land in Kendall Square, and once one large landowner builds, that forecloses other activities on that land. Correlated with that is rent. As deeper pockets move in, smaller pockets get forced out. At least I assume this to be true. Finally, there is an underlying dynamic which I believe to be true in business in general -- the consolidation of resources after a period of wild and chaotic and fruitful innovation and invention. There is a very good description of this phenomenon relative to the auto industry and its consolidation in Detroit around 1900 in Ed Glaeser's book The Triumph of the City. Indeed, I believe you yourself make a related point in some of your public presentations -- that small companies are a different species that large ones, and that they create jobs while large ones have been working on how to shed them. Add to this the theoretical issues of how this relates to social networks and it becomes intensely fascinating and equally important.


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