Kevin Bacon versus the Lone Cowboy

I recently watched a program on TV called How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer. It was a really interesting documentary that followed some scientists and mathematicians as they tried to discover the mathematical theory and structure that supports networks. Kevin Bacon was of course the person who was the example used in the popular theory known as Six Degrees of Separation.

These networks apply to brain functions, cells, computer systems, viruses, the spread of disease, air traffic flight paths, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and many other systems or networks.

The concept of “hubs” enabled them to provide a richer and more comprehensive structure to the mathematical theory. Kevin Bacon would be the original celebrity “hub”. Heathrow Airport is a major hub in the air traffic systems. What makes a “hub” I wonder? When you think about people in social networks it can be due to popularity. In Facebook the number of “friends” you have is an indicator of this. But how many are manufactured and how many are genuine? Barrack Obama on Twitter would be a major hub in that system and a genuine one at that.

At the other extreme of this is what I have called “the lone cowboy”: the loner; the person who doesn’t want or need lots of people to validate your own identity in this world. It is someone who wants to opt-out of society and doesn’t want to be a part of the social network. This link in the network might be like a little regional airport, the less-used brain cells, or the person who lives a solitary existence.

I hope the mathematical theory does not conclude that the points with a small number of links are not any less needed or significant than the popular hubs in the network. My own tendencies move toward the less busy parts of the network.

Big Brother

I have recently read a couple of interesting articles about privacy on the internet. Two of these were marking the 10th anniversary of Google. ‘Big friendly giant…or big brother?’ by David smith was published in the Age’s Good Weekend magazine on 13th September 2008. Here is his blog about the article. It was reported that Google “harvest more of our secrets than any totalitarian government”, and that “they have amassed more information about people in 10 years than all of the governments of the world put together.” Scary thoughts. But Larry Page and Sergey Brin who founded Google in September of 1998 instill this daily reminder into their employees – ‘Don’t be evil’. Their mission is to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

I then read the article ‘Facebook and the social dynamics of privacy’ by James Grimmelmann. The Grimmelmann article reports that “A 2006 survey of Facebook users found that 77% of them have never read its privacy policy.” And that “later regret about initial openness is an especially serious problem for the most active social network site users: young people.

I think that the difference between using Facebook and using Google is that in general people don’t realise that Google are farming your personal details, whereas with Facebook personal information is voluntarily and knowingly provided by the users.

I am an avid user of Google’s tools and use Gmail, Google Reader, Google Maps and Street View, YouTube, Google Books and Google Docs as well as being my first port of call for any web search. And I love Facebook. What a clever interface designed by the young Mark Zuckerberg. It pulls in many of the tools used by web-users and offers them up on the same website. Users can communicate with their friends via chat, email, posts, and share images, videos, games, and links. Users can join groups where their interests lie. It really is an amazing and addictive piece of software. But it is public and therein lays the problems. Where is the protection from predators, or future employers, or friends who are no longer friends, or identity frauds? Many people seem to be unaware of the dangers and often believe that there is ‘safety in numbers’. But in this era “connectedness is social currency”, so what can we do? Be aware I suppose. Read the small print. Be mindful of what you put on there. Self censor. Is it possible to do that and still have fun? “Our social lives are infinitely richer than any controlled vocabulary [labels to describe] can comprehend.”