A nation of polarized readers

An article in today's New York Times features this Amazon-derived network map by social network analyst Valdis Krebs. It's another fascinating illustration of an idea that Krebs mentioned when I interviewed him for the O'Reilly Network in mid-2002:

Given good pictures of social networks, what will we use them for? Valdis Krebs has lots of practical ideas. For example, consider Amazon's related-book feature. If you follow these links a few steps out, says Krebs, clusters emerge, and sometimes those clusters represent disjoint interests connected only through one book. He offers Thomas Petzinger's The New Pioneers as an example. It connected two different groups -- one reading books on business and strategy, the other reading books on complexity science and chaos theory. Now there are a number of books that broker that connection, but Petzinger's was one of the first popular books to do so, according to Krebs.

The general principle at work here, Krebs says, was articulated in Ron Burt's Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. It states that networks with "holes" -- that is, unbrokered connections -- present the most opportunity. A successful actor is one with ties to many points in the network who can uniquely fill one or more of those holes. To that end, Krebs -- who is writing a book on his experiences with social networks and business organizations -- plans to mine Amazon, map out the communities of interest relevant to his themes, and tune his presentation to optimally broker among them. [WebServices.XML.com: Seeing and Tuning Social Networks]

In today's Times story, Krebs identifies Bush at War and Sleeping with the Devil as the current political books that are being read by conservatives and liberals alike. Will publishers begin to apply this strategy consciously, as Krebs suggests might be possible? Filling the "structural holes" in networks, and creating large audiences from sets of smaller ones, is a fascinating idea -- though I'm sure it's easier said than done.

Valdis Krebs will also appear in InfoWorld's March 29 issue, by the way. For a feature on social software, I spoke with him and his business partner Gerry Falkowski about their use of social network analysis inside large enterprises such as IBM.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2004/03/13.html#a944