Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues in the July 24, 2009, Science that increasingly large open-source networks may stifle innovation. Network theory generally says that the value of a network increases as it gains connections. Value is all about information flow, and if information has more routes to travel, network members can access more flow. But VMS contends that at a certain point, additional connections degrade the value of the network, locking members into a certain modus operandi (modus cogitandi?) in which radical ideas simply can’t bubble up through the groupthink.

VMS sees the development of Firefox as a demonstration of his argument. Firefox stays pretty safe and makes only incremental improvements because (goes VMS’s thesis) the developers are locked into certain ideas and technology and don’t want to risk a radical change that could drive users away to competing products. I can see the logic there: in a widely distributed and highly connected network, a single developer with a radical idea may feel pressure not to rock the boat by proposing some iconoclastic overhaul that throws out the accumulated work of thousands of other network members.

VMS contends that the best innovation happens at the edges of the network, in research incubators like Skunk Works and the Manhattan Project. Throw a few bright people in a room or in the desert with a bunch of really good tools, sequester them from the pressure and inertia of a big, noisy network, and let them create wonders. The folks at Apple do that, and we get Macs and iPods, game-changing innovations.

VMS ventures (reluctantly, says Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log post) into individual behavior on social networks:

Mayer-Schönberger was reluctant to extend his analysis to individual behavior, but he said it might be worth your while to take a look at your own social networking. “Think hard about whether those 1,125 Facebook friends are really friends. Think about how many are hangers-on or chance encounters – and perhaps take them off,” he said.

You can build diversity into your own social networking by keeping a division between the various aspects of your life – for example, by using LinkedIn for professional contacts and Facebook for personal contacts.

“We now tend to converge our personal and professional lives, and that’s not necessarily a good idea,” Mayer-Schönberger said. “Having multiple and slightly overlapping networks is better than having one large converged network” [Boyle, A. (2009, July 24). Too much networking? Cosmic Log — MSNBC.com].

I’d love to take time later and merge VMS with Sunstein. Looking at what Sunstein says about the groupthink in investors’ clubs, it occurs to me that the problem with bigger networks may not be the number of connections but the cohesiveness of connections. A large group of a hundred or a thousand loosely connected developers may still generate more and more diverse ideas and innovations that a dozen tightly knit, long-associated developers.

I’m also not sure VMS’s argument works as an indictment of open source. The problems he talks about with Firefox and Internet protocols are not so much results of over-large networks of groupthinking developers as they are results of global adoption by groupthinking users. Open source provides the freest platform possible for innovators to get a hearing. But the funkiest innovation conceivable in Internet protocols won’t catch hold if you 1.6 billion users all relying on the status quo, you have some hard marketing ahead of you.

The argument may even turn around on itself: if you want your innovation to take hold, you may need a really big network of your own, a whole bunch of people who will say, “Oh yeah, I know Laszlo! He’s a heck of a developer. Go ahead, rip the guts out of my computer and install Laszlo’s new thingamabob.”

I can certainly see the merits of VMS’s argument in terms of social innovation. I look at my own political blogging in South Dakota through his paradigm of innovating from the edges. I know people in different circles—various South Dakota bloggers (political and otherwise), folks from the high school debate circuit, DSU profs and students, local media people, some of the Madison business crowd. But I view (and deliberately hold) myself somewhat outside each of those circles. I still feel like I do my best thinking, come up with my best political ideas, when I retreat to my desk and puzzle over how to save the world in quiet and pleasant isolation. I have lots of connections, and I continually make more connections through conversations online and offline, but those connections aren’t so cohesive that I can’t break away from them and throw out new, status-quo-upsetting ideas (or so I hope!).

Or think of it in terms of Facebook: VMS recognizes that beyond a certain number, friends on Facebook become a distraction, degrading the user experience by crowding out the posts of the few people you really feel close to. But I’m still inclined to maintain a high number of connections both for serendipitous input (notices of events I might not have heard about otherwise) and for wider potential output (broadcast of my blog posts). Lots of Facebook connections don’t prevent me from innovating, as long as I don’t allow all of those connections to become too cohesive—i.e., as long as I don’t read every status update and post from every network member or feel compelled to craft content of my own that will appeal to every member of my network.

I have my suspicions of big networks. But the Internet works specifically because it is a massive network with a kajillion connections. It allows good ideas and good tech to spread more quickly to more users. We still need solitary inventors who think and work best in a quiet lab or cabin by the lake, but they still need access to big networks to test and spread their ideas.

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