Social Business Social Rights in a Scale Free WorldOne of the central paradoxes of the social web is this: social means "me, first."

That sounds selfish, but I don't mean "me, first" in that sense. What I mean is that in a bottom-up, open context, our identity comes first, before connection. We have to publish something -- status updates, a profile, a blog post -- so that others can even know we exist. And our basic "social rights" are derived from that: they are self-evident. We exist in social space, and from that arises everything else. For example, your account on Twitter is like that.

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series by Stowe on the New Social Contract

Before I start to discuss these social rights, let's consider the opposite setting: where your rights are granted by others in authority. These are a more top-down, closed contexts, like your company's Basecamp instance. In that setting your rights come from membership in a defined group, usually defined by the person who set up the account, or some other administrator.

You can see documents, add tasks and communicate with the other members of your Basecamp group in a symmetric fashion. But your rights there are not self-evident: they are granted to you by the administrator. And generally (depending on how restrictive the group-based tools are) there is little or no free form affiliation possible among the members. It is a closed model based on closed membership, not open following.

Opt-in vs. Push Communications

The most fundamental concept in today's social tools is the open follower model. Twitter (and all other successful open social tools) are based on the premise that -- in general -- any user can choose who to follow. (Of course, Twitter does allow users to block specific people, but that is the exception that proves the general rule, really.) This sets up a pull communication dynamic: the recipient of information receives information because they have opted-in. It is not a push communication model, where the originator of information decides who should see it. Note that the push model is the foundation of most pre-social communications: letters, fax and email, for example.

Pull communication sets up a very different dynamic in social contexts. First of all, as people choose who to follow we see very interesting patterns of affiliation because open following is like popularity in the offline world.

Consider the scenario where one user has twice as many Twitter followers as another user. When a user joins the network, which of the two are they more likely to encounter and subsequently follow? If you picked the one with more followers you'd be correct.

This is because social networks -- when left open -- are scale-free, meaning that those with more followers will get more followers. And as a result, the follower count of networks follow a power law curve, where there are a few users with a very high number of followers, and then a gradual stretching out to a long-tail of people with very few followers.

The same holds with other social phenomena, like the popularity of musicians. What new music are you most likely to encounter and start to listen to? The one getting more play on the radio, more comments on Tumblr, and more plays on YouTube.

power law distribution.jpg

The consequence of that power law is those with many Twitter followers can reach more people when they create an update, and they do so without deciding who is going to see it. That was the collective decision of the network participants, but the nature of scale-free networks plays a great role in who becomes widely followed.

In my case, for example, I was never promoted by Twitter on their suggested user list, and now I have "only" 18,000 followers. A serious following but nothing like the 175,000 I have on Tumblr, where I have been featured on their technology bloggers page for a year or so.

Push communications -- and the small scale social groups that are implied by them -- don't have the same kind of dynamics at all. So, while it is true that those that send a lot of email or post a lot of Basecamp updates today are more likely to send lots of email tomorrow does not mean they are gaining followers in the larger social network at a higher rate than those that send less.

Social Rights & Network Dynamics

The point is that open following will lead to this sort of unequal popularity in any system, and so when we contemplate "social rights" we have to accept that even when systems are open, if they are scale free then the power laws intrude, and there are going to be serious imbalances in reach and the possibility to influence others. So, we can't anticipate equal opportunity as a social right in social networks.

However, that doesn't mean that new users are trapped, and in fact new members come on and develop large followings on Twitter all the time. It's just that it is hard to do. And it's worth noting, of course, that the "point" of Twitter doesn't not have to be gaining a large following. On the contrary. A great many people are quite happy to have few followers, and derive other benefits from participation.

One last comment: There is an anti-group notion that arises in open systems: groupings. The most obvious example of a grouping is the collection of people that have used a specific hashtag, for example #socialnow (a conference I attended in Portugal this year). These are a grouping and not a group. No one administers the hashtag (although it might have been recommended by the organizer), no one needs to be "invited" to use the hashtag: it's a bottom-up decision made by the individuals.

The ability to search for hashtags means that those in the grouping #socialnow might be able to find each other, but Twitter doesn't provide that as a capability. Yes, we can search for tweets with that tag, but in many instances I would rather like to see the list of the grouping's participants, or even follow them for the duration of the conference.

Strangely enough, while I was writing this column, Kate Huyett ‏(@khuyi) tweeted a request for that capability:

hashtag grouping tweet.png

The power that comes from "me, first" scale-free networks, and bottom-up affiliation is the motor that makes social run. And our social rights start there. As we shall see in the upcoming weeks and months, that is only the start.

Title image courtesy of  pashabo (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: As Stowe said, this is just the start. To see the post that launched this series, read A New Social Contract