book reviews

Linked, Ch. 10-16

Having finished the second half of this book, I think my impression of it from the first half holds true throughout: while thoroughly interesting and endlessly useful, I may have come in just expecting a more formulaic or dense structure to the information.

In “Awakening Internet” Albert-Laszlo Barabasi lays out the foundation of the idea he’ll explain the nature and consequences of for the rest of the book: the scale-free network and its structure. By explaining the humble beginnings of the internet and its development as a distributed structure, Barabasi gives readers a foundational understanding of how our most important network works.

One of my favorite quotes, although from later in the book, I think beautifully explains why this structure and its characteristics are so monumental: “There is no single node whose removal could break the web. A scale-free network is a web without a spider.”

Actually, I think this quote sums up the underlying message Barabasi is trying to explain throughout. What makes the internet a strong network is its structure: the power is decentralized, no one server holds all the keys, and the ever expanding reach of the network only makes its potential more fluid and palpable. The possible growth and preferential attachment that helps perpetuate that network is fundamental to networks in general though.

Another eloquent example was the explanation of the corporate tree: for all information flowing back up to the top, or the CEO, there has to be a lot of efficient filtration and categorization, so there isn’t and information overload when all the branches reach back to that one base.

I also really appreciated the explanation of corporate boards and how people in those circles often work on more than one board. Connecting separate companies that may benefit from each other is so crucial to connecting small worlds of nodes to other small worlds of nodes, because, as other point made in chapter 11 illustrated, hubs with a lot of connections actually move much more traffic than an even distribution among nodes. So, these tree structures that center power at a base, and these select hubs, or few people with many connections, they’re the real driving force and deciding factor in many of our networks.

Some examples Barabasi used included a study of the spread of the antibiotic Tetracycline that found, basically, that a small number of nodes have a majority of the connections. Meaning, in the four Illinois cities included, a small group of the doctors surveyed were the common connection of basically all surveyed.
An easier way for me to visualize what this means is follower ratios on Twitter. It’s actually more beneficial to have social media influencers who can act as guideposts for the internet, because as Barabasi explains, from any one page on the internet only 24% of the rest of the pages can be reached directly. To me this means that you can’t really ever predict where you’ll end up on the internet because you only know the site you’re currently on, and where you might go next. If everyone actually followed everyone, the hierarchy of information would be lost. Much like the corporate tree that leads up to the CEO, it’s better to have “viral” people and posts that create a type of landing zone to decide where you go next.

All in all I found the information in this book invaluable, and I’ve already recommended it to my friend, a software engineer who already understands the technical side of the ideas but would love the explanations and possibilities opened up by them. It’s remarkable to think about the potential of a network like the internet, and as all systems have, what other networks it have the potential to perpetuate.

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Linked, Ch 1-9

Before I started reading Albert Laszlo-Barabasi’s book on networks, I read some reviews that commented both on its usefulness and its repetition of the same key ideas. Reviews like this one also mention, albeit more emphatically than I would, the excessive anecdotes prefacing every major point his book makes.

While this review and my reading only cover the first half of the text, I see the validity in that criticism. However, the more I read, the more I appreciated the examples and, for lack of a better word, parables, that Barabasi used to illustrate his points. I do think that more examples and less introductions could have made the text more useful, but I also think the magnitude of the ideas explained in this book carry enough merit to justify a full length book, so I guess I also see why it was given the length that it was.  To summarize the important ideas I took away from the book: the 80/20 rule, connectors, power law, the six degrees of separation, strong and weak ties, the scale free model, and the idea of ever increasing networks also increasing the magnitude of a problem on that network, are all concepts that are invaluable to how we understand information and how it spreads on a network.

At times, though, these lessons are lost in turns of phrase and convoluted, long illustrations, when their value for growing a network can independently carry the whole of the text. While I really valued the information I found in the chapters, I just felt that some space could have been left to illustrate different ways to use the information given, rather than repreatedly explaining why that information was so valuable.

In that sense, I think the book was pitched and executed more as a book on theory, when it seems it would have functioned better if it had initially been treated as a practical, hands on guide to networks and growing them, since so much of its lessons carry that benefit anyway.

Overall, this is the kind of text you appreciate finding because you know its information is fundamentally important to understanding different aspects of many other trades. The great thing about learning about networks as a human being, is that you can use them, build them, and benefit from them in basically any aspect of your life. Your social and professional circles, and your audience as a content creator (more people fall under this title than you think) all can grow under a real implementation of these ideas. I’m purposely not going to explain them too much, because the book is worth reading for yourself, but I’ll briefly talk about the ideas that stuck out to me.

The 80/20 rule : 80 percent being reaped by or made from 20 percent of those making. Barabasi explains how many different models this ratio applies to, but also makes sure to highlight that the systems that this applies to actually stand out as an exception, not as the rule. So while this ratio is good to keep in mind when it comes to certain examples like productivity and wealth distribution, it doesn’t always apply to every scenario you look at.

I also appreciated the example given in chapter 9, about an ever increasing reach in a network also being a liability, illustrated by the 1996 west coast power failures. I think it’s really important to remember that while our interconnectivity is so important, and I think fundamental to what makes us human, that it also leaves us more prone to misinformation, since the bad, or false or malicious, can travel just as effectively and legitimately as the good, or credible or true. I think that would be most easily illustrated by looking at the recent revelations made by social giants like Tumblr and Facebook, in their own roles in the 2016 election interference.

I found this read endlessly useful. I look forward to the second half, and knowing to expect lengthy examples and anecdotes makes it easier to filter down to the useful advice, which there is plenty of.

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Aim for the Heart, Ch. 13: Tell the Story Online

This week’s reading was a chapter out of a great resource that I’ve actually used in a previous class for this program. Like Krug, Tompkins is direct and gives simple advice with simple reasoning: every lesson is themed to maximize your content’s appeal to a reader. This chapter focused mainly on the advantage of interaction that online news and storytelling has over broadcast and print media. Over several pages of bullets highlighting the difference between those passive forms of consumption, the message I walked away with was that while interactive stories are more complex, the engagement your readers have with your story and in a sense, with you, proves to pay off in reader loyalty and in turn even more interaction. My favorite quote to sum up the chapter, from p. 174, is, “Interaction promotes a deeper understanding of the story.” Not only do you have a more nuanced arena to display your knowledge and news gathering, but you can now choose what parts of your stories you want to depict differently, and still create a cohesive story through different media. Like Tompkins says, the flexibility and control of online media compared to broadcast media gives users more access to their news sources and to more information about the story that grabs their attention.

For instance, a common idea is that people don’t want to read stories that are too long. While this may be understandable, there are definitely ways to connect many different smaller works of research and stories into a larger theme or beat. For online journalism though, you can just use this model to continue to bring your readers back, to build updates and context. This would basically lay like a breaking story, then with more time a more investigative piece could be done about the consequences of or events leading up to that story. From there, profiles of the main involved people can be written, all linked to in relevant updates that keep traffic steady to the story as a whole. The Atlantic is my favorite for longform journalism, and the steady pacing, tone of the writing, and plethora of links to related stories throughout are the main reasons why. It keeps you immersed without being overwhelming, even when the story is a a few thousand words long. This story is a great example.

Tompkins’ practical advice for using video and leveraging your digital assets, I found really useful a a beginner in consistent online publishing. While a lot of advice may feel like common sense in hindsight, that’s usually just an indicator that it was good advice. So while I catch myself thinking, “Yeah, makes sense,” while I read about closeup shots and medium shots being better for online video because so many people watch on small devices nowadays, it’s not something you actually cognate until someone outlines that it does make a difference. Then you remember that some videos you watch on your phone feel “busy” or “crowded” and you can connect that that’s probably because their shots weren’t appropriate either for their story or the screen size the intended audience is seeing it on.

Meaningful engagement was interesting to read about because I’d assume you want any and all engagement, but it was validating to read about not all stories being left open to comment sections, because I agree that not all stories benefit from having them, or the audience doesn’t benefit in every case of a story having comments open. Using data to know what engagement is most effective, and making sure to use your analytics to understand when and what to post, again sounds like common sense, but mapping out guidelines like that for your organization can really make or break your viewership. In this same section, (p.183) there was advice given about being consistent and updating often during breaking news, special events, or elections. While I also as a consumer sample more during these occasions, I hadn’t thought about it as a journalist as such an advantageous opportunity to engage a new audience.

All in all, I benefited immensely from this chapter’s practical advice. I especially loved the simple bullet list of “Skills you need to get hired or keep your job” (p 190) and the social media guidelines from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Even more on this second read, I’m appreciating the perspective and experience Tompkins shares.