Further thoughts on “The Architecture of Complexity”

Hierarchy of digital distractions
Hierarchy of digital distractions (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

In his 1962 paper “The Architecture of Complexity”, Herbert Simon writes that social systems often are what he describes as “near decomposable” – by which he means (the next few are my words, not his) that paths through social hierarchies are narrow:

This is most obvious in formal organizations, where the formal authority relation connects each member of the organization with one immediate superior and with a small number of subordinates.”

Taking the argument further he compares social organisations (and society as a whole) to crystals and other physical hierarchies, remarking:

In social as in physical systems there are generally limits on the simultaneous interaction of large numbers of subsystems. In the social case, these limits are related to the fact that a human being is more nearly a serial than a parallel information-processing system. He can carry on only one conversation at a time, and although this does not limit the size of the audience to which a mass communication can be addresses, it does limit the number of people simultaneously involved in most other forms of direct interaction … one cannot, for example, enact the role of “friend” with large numbers of other people.

This means, he says, that “lower frequency dynamics” will be associated with society than with groups of friends – his parallel here is again with natural hierarchies, where he says the length of the bond or chain of interaction determines the “frequency of vibration”. In other words, the pace at which society changes is limited by the very large number of small interactions that need to propagate along large social distances.

By now I am sure most of you can see the point I am going to make: social media changes all this – as suddenly it is possible to be friends with a large number more or less simultaneously. In this case maybe we should see the events of, say, the Arab Spring, not as driven by social media because it escaped censorship but also because it radically shortened the social distance between those who were previously kept apart: atomised, to use another physical parallel.

Not a particularly original observation over the last 18 months – but worth thinking about as an alternative explanation of the power of social media from that offered by, for instance, by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together.

Shirky says the power of social media is that it lowers the cost threshold – it is not, as he cites in one example, that there were not lay Catholics concerned about sexual abuse before the internet, but that they could not afford to communicate.

But reinterpreting Simon the change brought may be more fundamental – the powerful bonds of friendship may spread as never before and the experience could be rapid and radical changes in society.

Power law growth is not the only way on the internet

Sometimes it is difficult to understand what to think about the internet as a transformative medium.

We can see the Arab Spring and the way in which networked and social media has broken down the only monopolies of power and information in authoritarian societies (though do not forget the way the Iranian regime used social media to pick off its opponents too) but in Britain I can also see that, despite a lot of hype and hoopla, the “traditional” media – broadcast news and print journalism – still count for more than any and every blog, even though the internet is continually reshaping these outlets too (or in the case of print, slowly strangling it to death).

I think one of the barriers to understanding the real impact of the internet on communications is what seems to be the need of the growing army of social media consultants to deploy the hyperbolic. The famous (and utterly compelling) video shown below is just one example.

But the reality is that one can build a decent presence on the internet without looking for explosive growth, viral spread and power law dynamics. This – the long tail – is typified by the this blog. I do not claim that anything written here is driving the news agenda in Britain, and nor is readership growing exponentially. But it is growing in what appears to be a linear fashion.

I have had a few stories picked up by slashdot and occasionally by one or two other influential tweeters and similar, which cause spikes in readership of particular pages. So I looked at the graph of readers of the home page.

Home page view numbers

There are still spikes for the wash over from the big hits, but much more important for me is the steady growth in the core readership. Already in 2012 the hits on the home page (3721) are comparable to the total for 2011 (4215) despite the two big peaks you can see at the end of February and start of September for last year. Much of that traffic is search engine driven (across the site as a whole Slashdot has been the top referrer – 15900 views – with all search engines managing 9646 referrals, but that is way ahead of Twitter – 1914 – and Facebook – 479).

Of course, it would be great if the blog “went viral” and millions were coming here to read about hex editors and domain-specific languages. But that is never likely, so the steady growth is a healthy sign, I think, that I must be getting something right. It also ought to remind social media boosters that theirs is not the only way.