Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, some have wondered whether the medium might cause us to lose our common ground. There is conceivably enough material out there for every individual on the planet to enshroud himself in his own informational universe, almost entirely divorced from everyone else. But in fact, the opposite is occurring. More than ever, viral memes are piercing our carefully crafted filter bubbles, and it is only going to get worse.
Economists say a system exhibits network externalities when adding users increases the value for everyone. The name comes from obvious applications of this concept—telephones are only valuable to an individual to the extent that other individuals can be reached through the telephone network, for instance. Email has the same property, and so do social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
In the context of blog traffic, Clay Shirky notes that if adding an additional reader to a blog will increase the probability that it will get yet another reader “by even a fractional amount”, the resulting distribution of traffic will be a power law. Network externalities create this effect because the additional users have increased the value for the remaining potential users. Networked industries are extremely skewed; the bigger the network, the greater the skew.
Network externalities turn out to apply more universally than is immediately obvious. How we value just about anything is highly influenced by the 5-15 people closest to us in our social circles. The set of 5-15 people closest to each of them probably overlaps but is not the same as our innermost circle. A series of interlinking circles expands outwards until it encompasses all of mankind. As Paul Adams shows in Grouped, we have been networked in this sense for all of human history.
When one person decides to, say, buy a particular brand of clothing, it increases the chances that one of the people closest to him will buy that brand, too. This increases the chances that one of the people closest to them will buy it, and so on, cascading outward ad infinitum. An increasing probability doesn’t mean a definite outcome, so not everything bought by anyone ends up being bought by everyone else. But every so often the spiral of increasing probabilities plays out in a process that, when it happens to online content, we call “going viral”.
The phenomenon of going viral makes a joke of the daily me and The Filter Bubble theories of Internet echo chambers. The bubble is all too easily penetrated, and the daily me bears far too great a resemblance to the daily everybody else.
Consider the social life of one individual as a set of concentric circles. Every so often, it seems like everyone in a particular circle is talking about the same thing. It happens most frequently with the innermost circle, which the individual is most engaged with. Sometimes a topic spreads to the next level, and occasionally it reaches the most remote circles. More often, content originating from the outer layers invades our inner circles.
All the Internet does, from this perspective, is bring the circles closer and closer together in informational space. Recent studies suggest that products like Facebook decrease the degrees of separation between people.
If you’re like me, you follow a wide variety of people on Twitter, but you can lump them into semi-coherent groupings. They each tend to follow their own dynamics, on any given day. Sometimes, one of them will blow up—during an Apple event, the techies basically dominate my whole feed. Sometimes, everyone blows up about the same thing. Rather than allowing me to segment myself into my little niche communities in my hidden informational universe, Twitter makes it harder for me to ignore the topic of the moment.
Contra Negroponte and Pariser, this is mostly a nuisance. I don’t care about most of the stories that go viral, and I would prefer to ignore them entirely. It used to be that random extreme events—unrepresentative of the larger reality—would dominate the news cycle. Now, they also dominate online conversations.
Although I take great pains to avoid the story of the moment, in the end there’s only so much I can do while choosing to remain online. And the benefits of using the Internet are worth the costs, even if I do have to tolerate a lot of pointless common ground.