Evolution of networks

2 08 2012

In late 1993 I remember using my first web browser. I was on a IBM RS6000, called “elysium”. It had a 24bit 3D graphics accelerator, obviously vital for the blue on grey text that turned purple when you clicked it. I also needed it to look at the results of analysis runs. The stress waves flowing through the body shell of the next BWM 3 series, calculated by a parallel implementation of an iterative dynamic solver I was working on for MSC-Nastran. I was at the Parallel Application Center in Southampton, UK. I worked on European projects doing large scale parallelisations. Generally in engineering but always solving practical problems; Processing seismic survey data from the south atlantic in 6 days rather than 6 weeks on HP convex clusters. Monte Carlo simulations of how brain tissue would absorb radiation during radio therapy, avoiding subjecting the cancer patient to two hospital visits. It was interesting work, and in my nieve youth I felt at times I was doing good for humanity. Using a web browser was becoming part of my normal life. I used it to visit the few academic sites that contained real information, to access papers and research that previously we would have received in paper form from the British Library. This was the first network, exciting, raw, generating a shift in how I communicated and how effective I was.

I remember some time that year, hearing about how this largely academic network was growing. It wasn’t going to be dominated by .edu  and .ac.uk, but there was going to be many many more .com s. I was worried by this. Concerned that the influx would bury a new found source of information. I was being selfish. One of my friends had foresight. He registered aa.com at a time when all web addresses were no more than TLAs. Some years later he had to hand it over to American Airlines. My own web address came a few years latter at a time when registration was a paper process accompanied by proof of registration at Companies House. This first network evolved with an influx of people and organisations performing a land grab. Soon all the TLAs were gone. Soon the number of porn sites far outweighed those with research content, and my worst fears were not realised as the search engines also evolved. Thanks to those earlier pioneers I can still find what I need.

Fast forward 2003, the doc com boom came and went. Sites that pushed content grew and fell as did the strange concept of money from nothing. Some survived. A new sort of network started. A network of humans using a site called MySpace. Initially it was cool and useful. It grew at a crazy pace with little or no control, allowing anyone to do almost anything on a web page.  And they did. Pretty soon it became one of the most unpleasant places to be on the internet. Then Murdoch bought it. No one talks about it any more. The myspace sign, if there is one doesnt appear on TV adverts beside that of Twitter or Facebook. If you look at it today it looks like a pale but still mildly unpleasant version of Facebook. I would guess a high portion of the Myspace pages are not those of normal human beings. The are a mixture of  bots and corporates all out to extract some last cent in vast quantities from some hair thin opportunity.  At least only 25M of us have been fooled by it.

Meanwhile, Facebook was growing. Facebook had the good sense not allow the type of  user generated content that had made MySpace so unpleasant. It started as a private club on some quite unsound social footings at Harvard.  Then it invited only a select few higher Ed institutions, first in the US, later overseas. Cambridge, cam.ac.uk where I now work was added relatively late on. It was a cool and fun place to be to start with. I remember being told by one particularly sharp Cambridge student who stared at me when I suggested she might like to use a reading list app, and told me to “stay out of my Facebook”. I was now older certainly not cool. As it opened up every wanted to have a Facebook page, and everyone did. 500M of us, oh no wait, that’s  now 900M of us, sorry I blinked. Or did we. The IPO had a valuation that predicted revenue streams in the gazillions, but the post IPO headache is kicking in strong for some. When Facebook was relatively small and raw, few were interested. Friends meant something. You could be very certain that everyone you could connect with was a normal human. With faith in human nature all have some good qualities. Those qualities made them worth connecting with. Facebook will eventually go the way of MySpace as in attempting to extract value from is product (us and our connections), it has attracted millions of fake us’es and devalued both the concept of friend and what it could sell those connections for. Everyone is born with a finite amont of  “Friend” currency. We all choose how to spend it. Some invest in 4 or 5 lifelong friends who stick together through thick and thin. Others spread it thinly over 100s. Perhaps the celebs who feel lonely have spread their Friend currency so thinly they cant identify and real friends any more.  No one has 500 valuable friends.

This is the evolution of networks. There is only a finite amount of value for any one node within the network. Initially in an unconnected state there will be lots of potential, but as it grows and each node makes more connections. Outside entities step in to extract value from those connections. As the connections are made, the value gets dissipated and lost until the space returns to primeval slime. Financial markets have a word for this. Arbitrage. Eventually every last opportunity is exploited until all is balanced and there are no opportunities left. Beyond that point we venture into an unreal world of fake promisses and pyramid selling.

I hope we can learn from how past networks have evolved. Twitter almost did during the Arab Spring. Sadly it too has been overrun by bots and organisations vying to exploit and extract. G+ might prove sustainable, but what else ? Coursera? Academia is a proven breeding ground.




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