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The Paradox of Connectedness
A magical effect of the internet has been to connect people ranging across the globe in new, and previously impossible ways. Just last week I was on Clubhouse listening to random people in Taiwan talk (in Mandarin) about how to pass the Google software engineering interview. You can follow and talk to your favorite people on Twitter, no matter who or where you live. This is generally a good thing!
Metcalfe’s Law (named after internet pioneer Robert Metcalfe) states that as the number of nodes in a network grows linearly, the value of the network grows exponentially. He was talking about telecommunications networks, but we’ve since applied it to social networks like Facebook.
This is what people mean when they refer to “network effects” for a product or service. The more riders who use Uber, the more drivers want to drive for the service, increasing the speed of service since there are more cars available to “connect” to. This is also generally a good thing!
But is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?
You’ve probably heard of Dunbar’s number before. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized that the size of the neocortex in the brain relative to the size of the body tells us about the amount of complexity a social group can handle before its cohesiveness collapses. He applied this to human groupings throughout history and observed a curious consistency: Across history, most human groups could only reach a size of 150 before they splintered or collapsed.
I experienced this threshold firsthand in college. I attended Olin College, where I was a member of the second class that had ever attended the school... and there were only 75 students per class. In my first year, there were 150 of us total; in the second year, the population grew to 225. The effect was noticeable: Where our freshman class had formed close social bonds with many of the sophomores in our first year, the social ties were generally weaker with the next incoming class. (If this sounds like a strange social experiment that I was unwittingly part of, believe me, we wondered that ourselves.)
Relationships in the real world differ from those online and scientists debate exactly what Dunbar’s number is for modern, internet-connected societies, but the point is that there is a limit to our capacity for connection that breaks down as the numbers get larger. When things get a little too connected, things don’t go so well.
In The World That Twitter Made, writer Tanner Greer contrasts the old blogosphere (which you probably missed if you’re under 25) as a “hundreds of separate communities”.
“[T]his meant that most communities were siloed off from each other. While a very few people with national prominence might be blogging to the masses, most people were blogging and commenting for a more select community.”
Now look at Twitter, and you can see where this might be headed. There are no silos anymore; everyone is connected to everyone else. The network has massive value per Metcalfe’s Law but it’s often not a very nice place to live.
I read a Twitter thread from Julian Shapiro recently about leaving San Francisco (where I live) and building a ranch in the middle of nowhere. I have no gripe with anyone leaving SF or complaining about the state of the city, and I’m pretty sure anyone who has lived here for at least a decade empathizes with the complaints.
No, what struck me was what makes this possible now: Remote work, satellite internet access, and self-driving cars. These technologies enable him to go and work wherever he wants, with one catch: he still wants his friends around. Hence the ranch.
When I read his tweet, it reminded me instantly of the concept of “burbclaves” from Neal Stephenson’s classic Snow Crash. In his semi-dystopian vision of the near future, he essentially describes a souped-up version of a gated community.
“Now a Burbclave, that's the place to live. A city-state with its own constitution, a border, laws, cops, everything.”
Burbclaves in Snow Crash are each built around a particular identity: Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong for Asians, New South Africa for apartheid Whites. In a world too connected, and too full of people, everyone resorts to finding community in other ways. Ben Thompson wondered what the connective tissue would be for society going forward in June 2020 just as we were settling into the pandemic and remote work:
“Perhaps over time it is geography that will follow business model, instead of the other way around; the shift towards work-from-home is a fascinating development in this regard.”
This is the paradox of connectedness: As we’ve become more connected digitally, we’ve been looking for more community and shelter from the endless roaring noise of the internet. And now with remote work, easy broadband remote access, and better mobility, this search for a niche is showing up physically. The internet is responsible for exploding our ability to connect around the world; whether that’s family, people interested in the same video game as you, or any other thing in common you can dream of. But it’s also simultaneously responsible for the desire to withdraw; from politics, from “the other side”, and now from cities in the real world.
In reality, it is rare for there to be an unchecked exponential growth curve. Logistic functions (s-curves) are more common. Rabbits multiply exponentially, but real-world constraints are stopping them from blanketing the earth. But when you are in the upward swing of an exponential or logistic curve it’s impossible to distinguish between the two.
When Metcalfe made his law in 1980, networks were still too small to find the ceiling of the s-curve. Perhaps today our networks are large enough that we are feeling the flattening out of the value of the network. For social networks, the Paradox of Connectedness provides the cap to Metcalfe’s Law.
The internet has enabled us to be more connected than ever, which has been a positive force up to this point. I wonder if we’re now crossing to the other side of the logistic curve. This is uncharted territory. The internet is magical, but we may be about to discover what happens when there's too much magic.