Homeostasis in Social Networks

4 August, 2008

As a network grows and develops a power law distribution of connectivity, the resulting structure is heavily biased towards the initial nodes by virtue of their prior existence. Social networks therefore tend to be disproportionately dominated by the individuals who have been around the longest. This state is very stable, since information flow on the network is highly dependent on these hubs. However, the imbalance of attention may result in potentially valuable new members being neglected or moving elsewhere. Stagnation as a consequence of homeostasis might be one reason why one network gives way to another.

In living organisms a stable structure is desirable, and homeostatic mechanisms are present to maintain equilibrium. However, if an organism cannot break out of a given equilibrium state it may prove brittle and vulnerable to external pressures. The birth and death of individuals allows a tribe or species to adapt to a changing external environment. An alternative response to environmental changes is exhibited by cellular slime molds which, when food is scarce, merge into a “multicellular slug-like coordinated creature which crawls to an open lit place and grows into a fruiting body. Some of the amoebae become spores to begin the next generation, but some… sacrifice themselves to become a dead stalk, lifting the spores up into the air.”

Corporations and other large organisations also suffer from the effects of homeostasis. Although there is an entire industry devoted to the study of organisational structural dynamics and change management, stagnation is more often than not alleviated by market pressures, whether by acquisition or enforced “restructuring”. In our work lives we are each happy to accept a comfortable equilibrium state, but this reduces the ability of the organisation to adapt. And of course, when nation states are too rigid and authoritarian they tend to fall to revolution rather than evolution.

In the brain homeostasis might correspond to boredom resulting from a lack of stimulation. This reaction is perhaps intended to instigate a search for new ideas or experiences, which are generally rewarded by a feeling of pleasure. If something is new and exciting it’s usually fun too, because we enjoy learning. The desire for novelty provides a mechanism to move the mind out of an unhelpful state.

If a garden is left to nature, a power law distribution of species quickly develops. One or two particularly well-suited or vigorous plants take over whilst others dwindle. Gardeners address this by weeding and pruning. Even “wild gardens” require the careful application of a little encouragement and discouragement. When a new plant appears it must be nurtured whilst the weeds are kept in check.

If social sites like Digg, Wikipedia and Twitter are to remain dynamic and continually evolving they need to solve the homeostasis problem. In the social media, new and interesting contexts or individuals with novel viewpoints should somehow be amplified. There has been recent discussion on Twitter about how a modified Retweet could be useful, and perhaps this partly fulfills the need since the resulting amplification is relative to the connectivity of the sender, but it ultimately depends on the goodwill of community members. I have mentioned in previous posts how novelty can be identified with semantic profiling, but how can it be “subtly encouraged” without threatening the social ecosystem in question?