Posted by: hdemott | April 19, 2010

Yogi’s Law: Privacy and Search On the Social Web

Metcalfe’s Law states that the value of a network increases by the square of the number of nodes on that network.

Yogi Berra states: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

So how do we get from Metcalfe to Berra – it’s simple – social networks.

There is no doubt that the rise of social networks has been driven by Metcalfe’s law. The more your friends live on social networks – the more valuable they are to those friends and to the next participant in the network. And while the value of the network increases exponentially (yes it is much better to be Facebook or Twitter than a user of these services) the value of the network to an individual user rises to some point, and then likely starts to fall away somewhat. Which get’s us to Yogi Berra – when a network becomes too overwhelming – its utility to an individual can actually decrease.

Metcalfe’s law was originally coined to talk about the growth of fax machines. The more fax machines on the telephone system – the greater the value of each fax machine. Of course as a user of a fax machine – they were only good as long as you could get through to them. Get enough busy signals – and they ceased to be useful – and started to be a time sink.

Similarly, while Twitter has grown like a weed – seeing the fail whale up more and more makes the service less useful for any individual than it might otherwise be. More relevant perhaps, finding the right information within the Twitter firehose of tweets, becomes more and more difficult until the search results become largely irrelevant.

Take Google as an example. One of Google’s main goals is to discern your intentions when you search and then deliver results so that you can find what you want and leave the Google search screen to your intended data as soon as possible. On Facebook and Twitter you can get a ton of data thrown at you – some of it relevant – most of it spam (and I use spam here lightly – and mean that it is not relevant to me and thus spam)  – and filtering it out is a real issue.

Look at the issue of personal privacy. People are shocked, shocked to find that the information that is being put up on Facebook and Twitter are being used to target you as an individual. It’s like a celebrity going out to a well known club – party all night – and then ask the paparazzi to please not take their pictures. It’s just not going to happen. As one particularly smart lawyer once told me – the E in E-mail stands for evidence. Anything you put up on Facebook – or tweet out in twitter should be considered as a public statement – right out there on the front page of your local paper.

And yet people are surprised when these things show up publicly.

Which takes us all the way back to Yogi’s law, which I would now posit: the value of a network to an individual increases by the square of the number of  friends you have on the network as long as you can filter the information to these friends and have no expectations of privacy.

We have a long way to go before get all the benefits of social networks without wading through a lot of noise. We have a long way to go before we can get to a level of privacy that any people would expect (and I would caveat this with the fact that many of the most ardent users of social networks have no expectation of privacy – which is great – because it makes their social interactions that much more real and useful)

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