As social networks grow users tend to “cluster” around affinity activities. topics and users. The cluster effect has historically been applied to urban agglomeration, as most kind of commercial establishments will tend to spontaneously group themselves by category
The cluster effect is similar to (but not the same as) the network effect. It is similar in the sense that the affinity preferences of both the medium and its participants are based on each ones perception of the other rather than the medium simply being the sum of all its participants actions as is usually the case. Thus, by being an effect greater than the sum of its causes, and as it occurs spontaneously, the cluster effect is a usually cited example of emergence.
In philosophy, systems theory and the sciences, emergence refers to the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Like intelligence in the field of AI, or agents in distributed artificial intelligence, emergence is central to the theory of complex systems and yet very controversial.
The emergence of social networks as the revolutionary wave of consumer generated content and “connections” is controversial to say the least. The media sends a stream of opinions on “how” the systemic dynamics of networking works and the impact of what it produces for businesses and society in general. Upon discovery of anything new everyone thinks they understand the new phenomena but few are able to truly comprehend the long term implications since there is no one historical reference to explain the dynamics in an orderly fashion.
What we are experiencing is the convergence of three scientific theories: clusters, emergence and social interaction being influence and transformed by the technological medium of social networks. This convergence, coined as the networking effect, has a long tail of discovery with ongoing analysis and development of new intellectual properties being defined to explain the phenomena.
A network effect is a characteristic that causes a person, content or technology to have a value to another person or person(s) which depends on the number of other people who know the person or follow that persons content. In other words, the number of related connections is a term in the value available to the next connection.
The term “network effect” was coined by Robert Metcalfe, the founder of Ethernet. In selling the product, Metcalfe argued that customers needed Ethernet cards to grow above a certain critical mass if they were to reap the benefits of their network.
According to Metcalfe, the rationale behind the sale of networking cards was that (1) the cost of cards was proportional to the number of cards installed, but (2) the value of the network was proportional to the square of the number of users. This was expressed algebraically as having a cost of “N”, and a value of “N^2”. While the actual numbers behind this definition were never firm, the concept allowed customers to share access to expensive resources like disk drives and printers, send e-mail, and access the internet.
Network effects become significant after a certain adoption percentage has been achieved, called critical mass. At the critical mass point, the value obtained from the adopted medium and the connections is greater than or equal to the effort required to participate in the medium and connect with its participants and content. As the value of the medium is determined by the user base, this implies that after a certain number of people have adopted the medium and its content, additional people will subscribe to the medium and connect with the participants due to the positive perceived utility.
The network effect has a lot of similarities with the description of phenomenon in reinforcing positive feedback loops description of system dynamics (Sterman 2000). System dynamics could be used as a modeling method to describe such phenomenon such as word of mouth and Bass model of marketing.
What does all this mean?
We’ve discussed four factors that are converging together and creating the phenomenon of social networking. There are a host of other factors that influence the dynamics of the medium and to say the least, we’ve only just begun to learn and understand what it all means to us personally, professionally and collectively as a global community of individuals with diverse interest.
Then again maybe we’re just not as smart as those who claim to totally understand the phenomenon of social networking. One thing is certain, the power of the phenomenon is disrupting everyones thinking.
What say you?