Yesterday at State of the Net I showed some of the work I did with the great Frysklab team, letting a school class find power in creating their own solutions. We had a I think very nicely working triade of talks in our session, Hossein Derakshan first, me in the middle, and followed by Dave Snowden. In his talk, Dave referenced my preceding one, saying it needed scaling for the projects I showed to alter anything. Although I know Dave Snowden didn’t mean his call for scale that way, often when I hear it, it is rooted in the demand-for-ever-more-growth type of systems we know cannot be sustained in a closed world system like earth’s. The small world syndrom, as I named it at Shift 2010, will come biting.

It so often also assumes there needs to be one person or entity doing the scaling, a scaler. Distributed networks don’t need a scaler per se.
The internet was not created that way, nor was the Web. Who scaled RSS? Some people moved it forwards more than others, for certain, but unconnected people, just people recognising a possibility to fruitfully build on others for something they felt personally needed. Dave Winer spread it with Userland, made it more useful, and added the possibility of having the payload be something else than just text, have it be podcasts. We owe him a lot for the actual existence of this basic piece of web plumbing. Matt Mullenweg of WordPress and Ben and Mena Trott of Movable Type helped it forward by adding RSS to their blogging tools, so people like me could use it ‘out of the box’. But it actually scaled because bloggers like me wanted to connect. We recognised the value of making it easy for others to follow us, and for us to follow the writings of others. So I and others created our own templates, starting from copying something someone else already made and figuring out how to use RSS. It is still how I adopt most of my tools. Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.

That’s why I fully agree with Chris Hardie that in the open web, all the tools you create need to have the potentiality of the network effect built in. Of course, when something is too difficult for most to copy or adapt, then there won’t be this network effect. Which is why most of the services we see currently dominating online experiences, the ones that shocked Hossein upon returning from his awful forced absence, are centralised services made very easy to use. Where someone was purposefully aiming for scale, because their business depended on it once they recognised their service had the potential to scale.

Dave Winer yesterday suggested the blogosphere is likely bigger now than when it was so dominantly visible in the ‘00s, when your blogpost of today could be Google’s top hit for a specific topic, when I could be found just on my first name. But it is so much less visible than before, precisely because it is not centralised, and the extravagant centralised silos stand out so much. The blogosphere diminished itself as well however, Dave Winer responded to Hossein Derakshan’s talk yesterday.

People still blog, more people blog than before, but we no longer build the same amount of connections across blogs. Connections we were so in awe of when our writing first proved to have the power to create them. Me and many others, bloggers all, suckered ourselves into feeling blog posts needed to be more like reporting, essays, and took our conversations to the comments on Facebook. Facebook, which, as Hossein Derakshan pointed out, make such a travesty of what web links are by allowing them only as separate from the text you write on Facebook. It treats all links as references to articles, not allowing embedding them in the text, or allowing more than one link to be presented meaningfully. That further reinforced the blog-posts-as-articles notions. That further killed the link as weaving a web of distributed conversations, a potential source of meaning. Turned the web, turned your timeline, into TV, as Hossein phrased it.

Hoder on ‘book-internet’ (blogs) and ‘tv-internet’ (FB et al) Tweet by Anna Masera

I switched off my tv ages ago. And switched off my FB tv-reincarnate nine months ago. In favour of allowing myself more time to write as thinking out loud, to have conversations.

Adriana Lukas and I after the conference, as we sat there enjoying an Italian late Friday afternoon over drinks, talked about the Salons of old. How we both have created through the years settings like that, Quantified Self meetings, BlogWalks, Birthday Unconferences, and how we approached online sharing like that too. To just add some of my and your ramblings to the mix. Starting somewhere in the middle, following a few threads of thought and intuitions, adding a few links (as ambient humanity), and ending without conclusions. Open ended. Just leaving it here.

5 reactions on “Of Scaling, TV, Salons, and the Invisible Hand of Networks

  1. From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].
    To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.
    Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.
    In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

    “Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”

    In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.
    If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.
    Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
    Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

    Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
    Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
    Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
    Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
    Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
    Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
    Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.
    An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

  2. This is a start to more fully describe and explore a distributed version of digitisation, digitalisation and specifically digital transformation, and state why I think bringing distributed / networked thinking into them matters.
    Digitising stuff, digitalising routines, the regular way
    Over the past decades much more of the things around us became digitised, and in recent years much of the things we do, our daily routines and work processes, have become digitalised. Many of those digitalised processes are merely digitised replicas of their paper predecessors. Asking for a government permit for instance, or online banking. There’s nothing there that wasn’t there in the paper version. Sometimes even small steps in those processes still force you to use paper. At the start of this year I had to apply for a declaration that my company had never been involved in procurement fraud. All the forms I needed for it (30 pages in total!), were digitised and I filled them out online, but when it came to sending it in, I had to print the PDF resulting from those 30 pages, and send it through snail mail. I have no doubt that the receiving government office’s first step was to scan it all before processing it. Online banking similarly is just a digitised paper process. Why don’t all online bank accounts provide nifty visualisation, filtering and financial planning tools (like alerts for dates due, saving towards a goal, maintaining a buffer etc.), now that everything is digital? The reason we laugh at Little Britains ‘computer says no’ sketches, is because we recognise all too well the frustration of organisations blindly trusting their digitalised processes, and never acknowledging or addressing their crappy implementation, or the extra work and route-arounds their indifference inflicts.
    Digital transformation, digital societies
    Digital transformation is the accumulated societal impact of all those digital artefacts and digitalised processes, even if they’re incomplete or half-baked. Digital transformation is why I have access to all those books in the long tail that never reached the shelves of any of the book shops I visited in decades part, yet now come to my e-reader instantly, resulting in me reading more and across a wider spectrum than ever before. Digital transformation is also the impact on elections that almost individually targeted data-driven Facebook advertising caused by minutely profiling undecided voters.
    Digital transformation is often referred to these days, in my work often also in the context of development and the sustainable development goals.
    Yet, it often feels to me that for most intents and purposes this digital transformation is done to us, about us but not of us. It’s a bit like the smart city visions corporations like Siemens and Samsung push(ed), that were basically devoid of life and humanity. Quality of life reduced and equated to security only, in sterilised cities, ignoring that people are the key actors, as critiqued by Adam Greenfield in 2013.
    Human digital networks: distributed digital transformation
    The Internet is a marvellous thing. At least it is when we use it actively, to assist us in our routines and in our efforts to change, learn and reach out. As social animals, our human interaction has always been networked where we fluently switch between contexts, degrees of trust and disclosure, and routing around undesired connections. In that sense human interaction and the internet’s original design principle closely match up, they’re both distributed. In contrast most digitalisation and digital transformation happens from the perspective of organisations and silos. Centralised things, where some decide for the many.
    To escape that ‘done to us, about us, not of us’, I think we need to approach digitisation, digitalisation and digital transformation from a distributed perspective, matching up our own inherently networked humanity with our newly (since 30 yrs) networked global digital infrastructure. We need to think in terms of distributed digital transformation. Distributed digital transformation (making our own digital societal impact), building on distributed digitisation (making our things digital), and on distributed digitalisation (making our routines digital).
    Signs of distributed digitisation and digitalisation
    Distributed digitisation can already be seen in things like the quantified self movement, where individuals create data around themselves to use for themselves. Or in the sensors I have in the garden. Those garden measurements are part of something you can call distributed digitalisation, where a network of similar sensors create a map of our city that informs climate adaptation efforts by local government. My evolving information strategies, with a few automated parts, and the interplay of different protocols and self-proposed standards that make up the Indieweb also are examples of distributed digitalisation. My Networked Agency framework, where small groups of relationships fix something of value with low threshold digital technology, and network/digital based methods and processes, is distributed digitisation and distributed digitalisation combined into a design aid for group action.
    Distributed digital transformation needs a macroscope for the new civil society
    Distributed digital transformation, distributed societal impact seems a bit more elusive though.
    Civil society is increasingly distributed too, that to me is clear. New coops, p2p groups, networks of individual actors emerge all over the world. However they are largely invisible to for instance the classic interaction between government and the incumbent civil society, and usually cut-off from the scaffolding and support structures that ‘classic’ activities can build on to get started. Because they’re not organised ‘the right way’, not clearly representative of a larger whole. Bootstrapping is their only path. As a result these initiatives are only perceived as single elements, and the scale they actually (can) achieve as a network remains invisible. Often even in the eyes of those single elements themselves.
    Our societies, including the nodes that make up the network of this new type of civil society, lack the perception to recognise the ‘invisible hand of networks’. A few years ago already I discussed with a few people, directors of entities in that new civil society fabric, how it is that we can’t seem to make our newly arranged collective voices heard, our collective efforts and results seen, and our collective power of agency recognised and sought out for collaboration? We’re too used, it seems, to aggregating all those things, collapsing them into a single voice of a mouthpiece that has the weight of numbers behind it, in order to be heard. We need to learn to see the cumulative impact of a multitude of efforts, while simultaneously keeping all those efforts visible on their own. There exist so many initiatives I think that are great examples of how distributed digitalisation leads to transformation, but they are largely invisible outside their own context, and also not widely networked and connected enough to reach their own full potential. They are valuable on their own, but would be even more valuable to themselves and others when federated, but the federation part is mostly missing.
    We need to find a better way to see the big picture, while also seeing all pixels it consists of. A macroscope, a distributed digital transformation macroscope.

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