Monday, December 10, 2012

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.