Scale-free networks

A scale-free network shows a power law distribution where there is a predictable imbalance. The 80/20 Rule is an example of a power law distribution: 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth (except it doesn’t seem to be these numbers anymore).

In a scale-free social network, a few nodes have a high number of connections and most have a low number of connections. The few nodes become “hubs” in the network (as seen by the degree distribution in the graph on the right). In a random social network,  most nodes have an average number of connections with a wider degree distribution (as seen in the graph on the left).

Internet evangelists, such as Clay Shirky, have heralded the potential for every consumer to also act as a producer of online content, resulting in a newfound democratic medium. However, power law distributions in online networks present a significant obstacle to this democratic ideal. Shirky would argue that power law affects large networks, such as the the most popular news sites in the public sphere, but may not affect small networks, such as family and friends reading your blog. If you’re hoping to follow Adriana Huffington’s example with your blog, the likelihood of becoming the next Huffington Post is slim because the existing top news blogs have a significant advantage of widespread recognition and reputation. (For example, when you read the previous, you’ve probably heard of the Huffington Post before.)

Next, think about how many blogs we might read on a regular basis. This number is finite, although the exact number might be higher or lower depending on our responsibilities.  Meanwhile, the number of blogs has grown dramatically. For example, Tumblr reported 357.7 million blogs in July 2017.

Prior posts have discussed the conscious and unconscious influence of our networks on our choices. Therefore, we’re more likely to read blogs that our friends read. Multiply this line of reasoning by millions of individuals and millions of existing blogs. The result is the power law distribution in blogs. A few blogs, such as the Huffington Post and others in the chart below, end up with more power than others because of their high readership.

So, the Internet reflects similar inequalities in social media networks as offline networks.  Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology applies here as a good reminder: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The technology (power of networks in this case) does not have an inherent ethical value because it’s the users of the technology that determine the ethical tone of the application, which can certainly be labeled as good or bad.

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