James Governor's Monkchips

Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum

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I have been meaning to get a few ideas down about Philip Balls’ Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another for a while. After all, it pretty much blew my head clean off. I totally loved the book – its changed my thinking more than any work of recent time. How I got to the age of 38 without having a real appreciation of statistical physics is beyond me. But the value of the book is that it made me want to dive into exactly that discipline.

That’s the thing. When I was 16 I made a choice – either Maths with statistics or mechanics. Given I was studying Physics and Chemistry, mechanics was clearly the right choice. Doh! nobody explained what Statistics actually was- I just thought it was boring crap that sociology types indulged in. I know. I know. So when Ball pointed out the the Gas Laws were based on statistics I was floored. Really? How could I not know that? Ball brings the world of Hooke and his associate Boyle into life and more importantly into context.

Is there really a physics of social networking, or as Balls puts it, a “new physics of society” though? The book attempts to make that case.

Talking of discipline – its a big book: Cote’ was pretty shocked when he saw the width of it – its 600 pages plus. But its well worth the deep dive into Long Form writing. Not everyone agrees – James Buchan slammed it in a Guardian review. While I would agree Critical Mass finally gets a little flabby in the last two chapters- up to that point its entirely riveting.

Popular Science agrees:

It’s a big book and it’s necessary to bear with Philip Ball through the rather (aptly?) ponderous chapter on Hobbes’ Leviathan up front, but once he gets into statistical physics he takes off.

There’s a lot on economics, on political power, globalization and even the Internet. Again and again the book comes back to the way that mass human action has some resemblances to the physics of large quantities of interacting objects. In physics this has produced a lot of theory based on statistics that does very well at predicting what will actually happen. When it comes to the human world, not entirely surprisingly, things are more complicated. Not only are most human masses not closed systems – so you have to take into account the impact of external forces – but a single individual can have a huge impact. When you are looking at gas molecules you aren’t going to have a Jesus or a Hitler – we, on the other hand, can expect that.

Funnily enough, if you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (a lovely amuse bouche compared to the epic meal of Critical Mass) it becomes abundantly clear that it makes perfect sense that a single individual can make a massive impact- if they are in the right place at the right time, connected to the right people and with the right background. Some atoms in a gas move at incredibly high speeds (its a normal distribution). These are the outliers. But we can only really understand the average behaviour of a great number of such atoms.

Can we really understand aggregates of people in the same way we consider aggregates of molecules? Buchan comes across as a bit small-minded on this question. After all, while human networks are not “closed systems” – neither are physics and mechanics. Sure in Physics 101 we ignore things like the resistance of air in working out the behaviour of a bouncing ball, because we know real life is always more complex. But look at the massive investments made in simulating wind resistance in order to get accurate models of physical behaviours.

With the Internet the science of human breadcrumbs has utterly changed. Google is a counting engine. Twitter is a motherlode of behaviour we can mine. Declarative Living and Tag Gardening can let us “do the math”. Asymmetric Follow is just a scale-free network- but we have the maths at hand.

IBM and SAP are turning social maths into products, through social network analyzer products that parse email paths. If Enterprise 2.0 is to be anything it probably needs to be based on mathematical network theory. What’s the ROI of putting on your pants? Meaningless. But who is talking to whom about what, who was the most influence in a space – these are workable questions.

We make a virtue of ignorance. How many so called “social media experts” have read any network theory? We think we’re so smart. How may social media experts have any understanding of statistical physics? Probably a vanishingly small proportion. But science can teach us a lot if we engage with it. That’s the beautiful lesson of the book.

32 comments

  1. social media meets science: critical mass http://bit.ly/2hfWSc
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. “We make a virtue of ignorance. How many so called “social media experts” have read any network theory?” http://bit.ly/2hfWSc
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  3. New post by @monkchips “blew my head clean off”. How many so-called “soc media experts” have read any network theory?” http://bit.ly/2hfWSc
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  4. Network theory likely explains why none of Twitter trending topics never seem meaningful to me. @monkchips on science: http://bit.ly/2hfWSc
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  5. [email protected] post “blew my head clean off”. How many “soc media experts” have read any network theory?” http://bit.ly/2hfWSc via @KathySierra
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  6. http://bit.ly/1d0a41 @monkchips on social media “we make a virtue of ignorance”. i might just dive into philip balls’ “Critical Mass”
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  7. Besides physics, there’s queuing theory, systems dynamics, formal nonviolence theory, and a large but probably finite sets of knowledge would inform the social media expert. Predicting human behavior, individual and group, has been the focus of disciplines including poli sci, ethics, religion, and more. Prediction is the root goal of all science. Prediction is the magic of social media — just in a novel context.

    For a topic where such various skills coud inform success, saying a deficit in one area constitutes “willful ignorance” seems a little harsh, perhaps?

    1. Well said Shava. perhaps a tad harsh, but I do find a surprising lack of curiosity out there. Hari Seldon would not have approved. 😉

  8. Shava makes a great broader point. There is a lot of science that relates to social interactions and networks. Arguably some of that science isn’t great and much of the rest is “soft” but surely it collectively has some value. But one sees precious little of it applied by many social media “experts.”

  9. “Long Form” writing? Do you mean “book”?

  10. James you are spot on. The book is now on my list.
    Here I go again, linking to my own ancient ramblings.

    http://theotherthomasotter.wordpress.com/2007/12/28/hr-and-what-ever-this-20-thing-is-going-to-be-called/

  11. MUST-READ: Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum http://tinyurl.com/ylqp2dx
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  12. Ah, back to the future … of Asimov’s Psychohistory!

  13. You’ve tantalized my appetite to read this tome, but I am leary of proclamations of predictive models. After reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, I came away with a new appreciation for how little we know.

    1. great point carmen. but better understanding of critical phase transitions as they apply to markets, for example, might even help us avoid some of the worst excesses of markets out of kilter. The credit crunch was like a liquid turning into a solid – the similarities may not be entirely metaphorical. Social networks- of which markets are one –

      mike cane – just a little joke there…

      de – yes book. that’s what its called. more than 140 characters, that kind of thing.

  14. […] “How many so called ’social media experts’ have read any network theory?” — James Governor […]

  15. Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum #NotDouchebaggery http://bit.ly/1d0a41
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  16. Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ was mentioned; I also highly recommend his other ‘amuse bouche’, ‘The Tipping Point’.

    There is certainly a lot of science out there regarding social interactions and networks, however I’ve found that ‘economists’ such as Gladwell have been the best interpreters of this information regarding its application in the real world. Forgive me for being an apologist to the social media ‘expert’ crowd (of which I’m not one), but I believe it’s completely rational on their part if they turn to other disciplines (such as economics) for advice over say, dense network theory, for inspiration. Same point as what Shava made above, with the addition that focusing on data sets and statistics can make you lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with groups of unique and complex human beings here. Folks like Gladwell certainly understand this.

    That said, I’m looking forward to reading the book – the most powerful area of a discipline is where it intersects with another discipline. If the social media folks harness statistical physics, those marketing soirees are never going to be the same again.

    1. hi Rosanne thanks for your comment. A couple of things. First off we should learn from recent events. Economists have been using deeply flawed and simplistic models of markets. Nobel prize winning Gaussian trading strategies have been proved utterly at odds with the truth of how markets operate. http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-03/wp_quant?currentPage=all

      In fact Ball argues, and I concur, that we need to drive social physics into economics to make it more effective. Rational really? I should also say that not only do very few people really read economics – but Gladwell is certainly *not* an economist. He is in the field of popular science, same as Ball.

      “make you lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with groups of unique and complex human beings here” – with respect you can still apply maths here. Again look at, say Suroweiki’s Wisdom of The Crowds – for a brilliant exposition on the power of aggregation. I hope you enjoy it – let me know.

      this was the basis of most of the trading strategies that killed us.

  17. “If Enterprise 2.0 is to be anything it probably needs to be based on mathematical network theory.” http://bit.ly/Iop9Y #e20
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  18. Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum http://bit.ly/1d0a41 #Enterprise 2.0
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  19. @amcafee what book made a BIG impression on me? I’m glad you asked http://bit.ly/2hfWSc #andyasks
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  20. James, when you and I spoke this morning and you mentioned how closely what Jive is doing in social analytics mapped to the points you made in this blog, I was excited to read it. After doing so, I completely agree. More importantly, I think we are only just entering this stage of insight when it comes to social analytics and the next year is when the magic happens. I often describe the last few years in terms of the maturity of social analytics as:
    Level 0 (2008): Community growth metrics
    Level 1 (2009): Translation of traditional business ROI metrics (case deflection, deal closure, product adoption, etc)
    Level 2 (2010): Illumination of Social Value within Business

    It is this next level that feels to me like what you are talking about, James, and it is this information and the power it has to transform the way we work together and make decision in the workplace that has me excited.

  21. Reading: James Governor: “Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum” ( http://bit.ly/MPFdr )
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  22. Really fascinating concept!

  23. Social media meets science, @monkchips hits the nail on the head (I studied statistics & mechanics James 😉 ) : http://is.gd/4Be36
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  24. thanks @delineator for the awesome link about Economics violating the laws of physics http://bit.ly/kX8lq chimes with http://bit.ly/2hfWSc
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  25. Patiesi – How may social media experts have any understanding of statistical physics? http://bit.ly/1d0a41
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  26. […] can affect your bottom line. Do the maths. Just […]

  27. […] James Governor’s Monkchips » Critical Mass: Bringing Physics to Social Network Pablum […]

  28. James – there has to be maths at the heart of this – it is at the heart of all other systems – personally I favour the Fibonacci sequence that takes us neatly up to the Dunbar upper limit and has some neat stops along the way of 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 8 – 15 – 21 – 33 – 89 – 144

    These all include key groupings for people. More here http://smartpei.typepad.com/robert_patersons_weblog/2010/10/twitter-and-the-dunbar-number.html

  29. Hi James, I’m a bit late to comment but I really enjoyed this post and the discussion that followed.

    It was great to hear your reaction to the book and I’ve included an extract in a recent post I wrote – Thinking about a Physics of People’.

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