As the total knowledge around us increases to the point where understanding concepts is difficult, sometimes we have to turn to analogies to help us understand complex things. In the case of this entry, I will use the behavior of a completely rational, physical system to give you an analogy that describes the decidedly pseudorational process inherent in the extremely complex dynamics of social networks.
Complex systems are often fractal in nature, with aspects occurring at different levels of perception. The notion of a LASER being somehow related to a social network is something that is appealing because both describe processes that have very similar constraints and properties – the idea of turning random ideas into coherent ones through an actual process.
We’ll start with LASERs.
The acronym LASER was coined in 1957 as a description of a device that emitted a special kind of light – a light that was extremely pure and not normally seen in nature. The acronym LASER means “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. A LASER works by constraining a working medium (usually a gas, but it can be a solid) within a cylindrical volume. Radiation is then applied in a pulse to the working medium, pumping up the energy levels of the atoms within it. As the energy level of the atoms drops back to their rest state, a photon is emitted. All of the atoms of the working medium emit exactly the same, specific frequency of photon. To amplify this effect, a fully reflective mirror is placed at one end of the cylinder and a partially reflective mirror is placed at the other end. This bounces any loose photons back inside, exciting more atoms and amplifying the effect. The light that emerges from the partially reflective mirror is the laser beam. Because the photons that emerge are in such close lockstep, the beam diverges very little over long distances – a property known as coherence.
My own interest in LASERS began in high school. One of my favorite things to do in those days was to read The Amateur Scientist in the back of Scientific American. C.L. Stong edited these columns, which were a fantastic introduction to the experimentalist aspect of science. When Mr. Stong edited the column, he showed, in incredible detail, how to construct a wide variety of amazing machines ranging from atom smashers to vortex cooling tubes and even electron microscopes! The experiments were submitted by other amateur scientists, but Mr. Stong’s artistry in both illustrating and writing captivated me.
One of the experiments involved the construction of a carbon-dioxide laser. This was particularly interesting to me as it was about 6 watts, easily capable of burning through a razor blade just like the LASERs shown in science fiction! My obsession with trying to build this device led me to a decent understanding of how it worked, as I had to jury rig many of the parts. Due to a last-minute error in coolant routing, the LASER wrecked itself when I turned it on. I did not mess with another laser until I got into college, but I don’t think there could have been a more effective way to learn about quantum physics and electronics than building a device like that.
Now let’s turn our attention back to the world of social networks.
At first look, a social network seems to be no different from the community networks that have existed since computers were first connected together. There is an important difference though – one of connectiveness and grouping. Looking at systems like Facebook and Twitter I couldn’t help comparing them to how a LASER works. Let me explain why.
In a Social Network, we have people who are often connected through friendship, common viewpoints and common interests. Using our LASER analogy, you can consider the groups of people as the working medium, the social network infrastructure as the LASER and the world at large as the pumping energy. The outputs of the system are highly discriminated ideas.
The news resulting from the world at large generates all sorts of amazing things. A funny picture, an interesting document, a news story, a video, etc. Basically, anything of common interest to a group of people (stimulation). The mechanism of the social network isolates the awareness of groups of people to these ideas, and their intensity and receptivity is gauged by the sensitivity of the groups that are exposed to them. As an idea enters a group, its importance is elevated among the different members by their parallel filtering of commonly important aspects of the idea. As the idea is re-tweeted, shared or re-posted to different members, it gains in importance relative to its relevance to the group (amplification). The idea is also shaped and made more coherent by the members of the group as they seek to understand and express its core notion. The changes that are commonly accepted contribute to the idea’s “stickiness”. At some point, the relevance of the idea becomes so great that it becomes noticeable to the world at large and breaks through to becoming a full-blown meme (emission).
When looked at this way, social networks are a means of consolidating and amplifying ideas. I think this is a good thing and that social networks are an evolved mechanism that our society has constructed to deal with the affluence of ideas which, at last count, were doubling in production every year.
Social networks are a natural way for us to understand and refine trends and generate ideas. Ultimately, ideas are the core of all economies and mechanisms leading to their refinement should be studied and nurtured. Social networks create a democratic participation in this process at all levels of society, from pop culture all the way up to the most technical understanding of nature.
That helps everyone.