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Henry David Thoreau On Google Plus

Much ado has been made about the Circles feature on Google Plus. People have been praising it as one of the true innovations and differentiators between it and Facebook, etc.  Mostly because it recognizes that people’s connections to others have varying levels of strength and relevance dependent on what is being communicated. It’s where Metcalfe’s Law was wrong and Henry David Thoreau was right.

Facebook Follows Metcalfe’s Law

Robert Metcalfe is an electrical engineer, co-inventor of ethernet (that thick cord plugged into your computer that the internet comes through), and founder of 3com. While working on ethernet, he developed a framework for valuing the  network effects of communication technologies. It was later codified by George Gilder in 1993 thusly: Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2).

Under Metcalfe’s Law all connections are given equal weight – even though certain communications are used more frequently than other ones. When you sign up for Facebook, it gives all of your relationships equal weight by default. Facebook follows Metcalfe’s Law.

The problem with Metcalfe’s Law is that it is not an ironclad law – it works best as a metaphor. It does not weigh the value of a connection, but merely the underlying base connection. Just because you have the connection to someone else does not mean you utilize it at all times. You want to share particular information along certain communication links and not others (Promotion – share with everyone. Hungover and skipping work – don’t share with boss).  Someone at Google realized that defaulting all connections in a social network to follow Metcalfe’s Law was wrong and came up with the idea for Circles.

Google’s Life in the Woods

We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.

Henry David Thoreau on the very first large telecommunications network ever built in the Unites States, the telegraph.

As was pointed out, “Maine did have quite a bit to communicate with Texas–but not nearly as much as with, say, Boston and New York City.” Certain connections are more valuable and relevant than others. Google Plus defaults to this position.It recognizes the differing values you place on your connections with people across a social network. While Facebook has Groups and Twitter has Lists, neither were prominent features on the services. Google recognized what Throeau recognized in 1854:

You don’t have something to say to everyone all the time.

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For more more in depth and technical understanding of the applicability of Metcalfe’s Law to social networks, read Metcalfe’s own words on the topic here.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.
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