Connected to Everything Else
By Mark Johnson
A review and response to Linked: How Everything Is
Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and
Everyday Life by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Nexus: Small Worlds and the
Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan
Have you noticed that conversations these days are often
about cell phones, palm pilots, blackberries and digital paraphernalia? Cyberspace
consciousness has replaced the weather as the social convention for breaking
the ice. Perhaps because, like the weather, it surrounds us in ways we cannot
ignore or change.
Connectivity, caughtness in the web of the digital, is the
truth of our times.
We all know that everything is connected
to everything else
today; that is a cliché of modern science. But how does it affect our
behavior? What out of “everything” is important? How is it “related” to
the truth of our times.
At one level, a fairly deep level at that, we are simply
discovering laws that have always held true. Just as the position of the moon
affects the tides and the temperature of H20 the texture of matter,
we have always influenced behavior at a distance through other people. Network
discovering eternal truths that cross species lines and time.
But the world is also different. This
impacts the ways in which we can use the laws and tools of science and technology
to change how we behave.
Pluralism is a function of global mobility, both of people and ideas. The
physical mixing of people of different faiths without regard to national and
institutional boundaries is different today. Cell phones and pagers, the
internet and wireless world are new in future shaping ways.
In global YMCA work, membership is the aspect of relationship
and connectivity that most intrigues us. Through membership comes the sense of
belonging, the possibility of intimacy, the identity shaped by interaction, the
support we need to succeed in reaching our goals.
Current information theory characterizes
links. Links are the nature and character of connectivity. By understanding
links we can increase our appreciation of membership, friendship, community and
organization. This may sound mechanistic, and there is an orderedness to it
that is typical of laws of nature. But our proverbs and literature and lives
are full of the human impact of physical realities. Intimacy grows deepest in
proximity; membership is strongest with interaction; discipline requires
repetition. The organic and dynamic interact with the mechanic and the static.
One of the more powerful underpinnings
of network theory is Mark Granovetter’s concept of the “strength of weak
ties.” In studying patterns
of successful job searches, Granovetter discovered that more people found their
jobs, or people to fill jobs, through friends rather than family, and usually
friends one or two steps removed, available only through acquaintance links,
not directly. MOST jobs. The MAJORITY of jobs.
If we are looking to fill positions, increase membership,
find volunteers, expand donor bases, we would be well advised to identify weak
ties and engage networks, and to do so consciously.
Word of mouth is our colloquial description;
an intuitive solution and not new. The other linchpin of the theory is the
role of the hub.
Not all nodes are equally connected. And here an element of chaos enters the
orderliness of a lawful universe. Over time hubs, somewhat randomly, become the
attractors of more and more links.
The high connectors of the world are
more effective paths to
more people. These are the people we want on our boards. These are the
individuals who should be heading up our annual and capital campaigns. There
are simple tests for ferreting them out: how many names are in their address
books? How many steps removed from key leaders in the community are they? How
many members have they recruited already? Using tools of data collection and
data mining creatively will identify the hubs. Know your hubs!
Both patterns are critical to network
theory. Hubs make the
systems efficient. Weak links insure they never break down. The positive
attributes of the system are that information is seldom totally lost, there is
no one correct answer or path to an answer, complexity creates conservation. The
negative attributes of the system are that mistakes are hard to expunge, errors
are self-propagating, terrorists create cells, and diseases evade
Barabasi is a key theorist of networks;
Buchanan is a
science writer covering the field. Both are thoroughly accessible,
delightfully engaging, enormously provocative.
This article first
appeared in Perspective: Publication of the Association of Professional
Directors of YMCAs in April of 2004 under the title “The Power of a