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The People Law trumps the Power Law

by brittb on March 19th, 2007

There are five principles I’m playing with lately:

  1. The size of your audience confers limited power
  2. A network’s value is the square of its nodes (Metcalfe)
  3. Network nodes are significant only when they’re verbose
  4. Most conversation is among nearby nodes
  5. Only interactions count, and the richest count most

1. The size of your audience confers limited power

We’re so accustomed to broadcast economics that the Power Law seems like it’s how influence should be measured. But I don’t think that’s how things work any more, out here in the wild west of the read-write web. Here’s the Power Law as depicted at Wikipedia:

The biggest audience is reading a few writers on the left side of the chart. Readership per writer goes downhill fast from there. As David Weinberger says, “Everyone’s famous for 15 people.” But what’s the importance of a big audience of passive readers? In the age of Big Media, It was the only thing we could count, but those times are months behind us. In social networks, everyone is a potential participant, but if your 10,000 readers leave 100 comments but don’t take your ideas and run with them, so what? Leaving a comment is a lot like leaving, because Embrace is not the same as Extend.

2. A network’s value is the square of its nodes (Metcalfe)

The math is controversial, but the principle is sound. Literally. If your nodes don’t sound off, they’re useless, so rule 3 is key:

3. Network nodes are significant only when they’re verbose

When you consider all the ways that a person might reach out to another, reading and commenting seems like thin tea. Face-to-Face is the real point of community, as Kathy Sierra wrote at her Creating Passionate Users blog: Face-to-Face Trumps Twitter, Blogs, Video…

She even provided a diagram:

Kathy’s subject was why people bothered to go to the SXSW Conference when there are so many other ways to connect. It’s because people need their people fix, and even for these hackers, virtual doesn’t hack it.

4. Most conversation is among nearby nodes

Since it’s interactions we’re after, we need a kind of calculus of relationship, perhaps as revolutionary as Newton’s discoveries that brought logic to orbiting planets and arcing cannonballs. Here’s my depiction from the Dean campaign:

Everybody engages a network gradually and experiences it mostly through their friends. If your network has mechanisms for encouraging outreach and constant chatter among nodes, it will grow. News and juicy tidbits flow down the nervous system and questions and energy flow back. That sound you hear is the twittering of the network’s nervous system. Every political campaign is learning the same lesson in this transformative election cycle: The movement’s not about the candidate, but about the conversation. or,

It’s not about the Twit, it’s about the Twitter

5. Only interactions count, and the richest count most

Most of the population of “interactors” is out there on the long tail of the Power Curve. But to We The People out here, the arcane and convoluted ramblings of the pundits fall on deaf ears. What we care about is learning something we don’t know from someone a little closer to the action, and pushing our unique point of view back in toward the center of the movement. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So let’s put that silly Power Law to rest at last: it’s a monument to outmoded metrics. The People Law is the one we’ve been conforming to all our lives: Where there’s folk, there’s fire.

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