Social networking in Radiospace

Weblogs often list affiliated weblogs as a column of links which Doc Searls first named a blogroll. A couple of months ago, on my Radio weblog, I tried a variation on this idea. Rather than hand-edit my blogroll, I wrote a script that automatically reads the list of RSS channels to which I subscribe, in Radio's news aggregator, and echoes that list on my homepage. With a tip of the hat to Doc, I called this widget a channelroll.

The channelroll was a way for me to ask a series of interrelated questions:

A visualization of fifteen channelrolls

Last week I collected fifteen channelrolls and did some analysis of them. One set of results can be viewed at . The Python script that contains the raw data and emits the visualization is at .

At the core of the script is a Python object called a SequenceMatcher, which can compare two lists -- in this case, two channelrolls -- and produce a similarity ratio. Two instances of the same channelroll yield a value of 1. Two channelrolls that have no subscriptions in common yield a value of 0.

As you'd expect, clusters emerge. The strongest correlation connects Sam Ruby, Peter Drayton, and Gordon Weakliem. Given the small samples (just fifteen weblogs, and as few as ten RSS subscriptions per channelroll), we shouldn't read too much into this. Still, I'm sure none of those three would find this result surprising.

Even more than similarities, I was looking for differences. There is a certain sameness to a lot of the blogrolls I see. Many of those first attracted to blogging share interests in software and networking. To a first approximation, blogspace today is a community of like-minded people. But we're starting to see hives emerge. Among Radio bloggers, for example, clusters of lawyers and academics have appeared.

It's useful to identify yourself with a cluster of like-minded people. It may be even more useful to locate clusters of differently-minded people whose activities complement your own. Jenny Levine, for example, is a gateway to a world of librarians who see information technology very differently than hardcore techies do. Of the fourteen non-Jenny lists, those of Sam Ruby, Gordon Weakliem, and I were, again not surprisingly, most unlike Jenny's.

For a techie crowd, Jenny is a connector into a network of people who need to use information technology in certain ways. Techies who would like to respond to those needs would do well to pay attention to them. Visible subscription lists are one of the ways in which disparate groups can seek out points of connection.

Connections are of course multiple and overlapping. In this sample, Jenny Levine and Jim McGee have a strong mutual correlation. But although I am weakly related to Jenny, I'm strongly related to Jim. Again this doesn't surprise me, as we share interests in knowledge management and organizational dynamics.

Jenny's chart shows a strong bimodal pattern. She correlates strongly with one set of lists (roughly speaking, non-techies), and weakly with another set (techies). Interestingly, this bimodal pattern is masked in a chart that simply averages the correlations for all fifteen charts:

Here Jenny falls in the middle of the pack. Joe Jennet emerges as the person who is most different from, and Paul Snively as the one who is most like, the (arbitrary) group.

What this might mean, if anything, I leave to others to speculate about. It's clear to me, though, that there are many dimensions of relatedness. Google, for example, sees me as more closely related to Jenny , and her to me , than do my subscription-driven charts. I'm sure that both measures are true in different ways.

As we narrate our working lives online, and intertwine with other working lives, the data trails we create will yield richer and more complex visualizations. The fascinating question, to me, then becomes: "How shall I design my interface?" For example, I can choose to reveal my subscriptions, or not. I can choose to reveal my backlinks, or not. How I make these choices will be determined not only by my own sense of architecture and aesthetics, but by what modes of interaction I wish to allow -- and to encourage others to experience with me.

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