Math says, you’ll probably never be famous – on connectedness and diversity

If you’re wondering why math is being mean to you (although math tends to have… a reputation), rest assured it has nothing to do with you personally. Math just hates most people.

Jokes aside, the model that I am about to introduce you to is about the way networks grow and interact (don’t worry, we’re going to skip the math part). It’s called the Barabási–Albert model – find it here on Wikipedia or the longer version here on the website of one of the authors, and it explains why we all know and use the same large websites when the internet is so endlessly full of content. I mean, we could all spend the rest of our lives looking at cat pics either way, but we would probably do it on the same few large websites. And it also applies to people, there are comparatetively few people that are really well known, and you are infinitely more likely to know of them than to know of me.

When one thinks of networks, be it the internet or a social web, one tends to think in terms of diagrams. The network might be complicated, but there’s a finite number of connections possible, right? I can draw the network and get it under control, all nice and tidy on the paper, right? But for many applications, this is just not true – the internet grows by the minute, with new sites being added. The amount of people on the planet is growing. Your personal social network keeps growing as you meet new people. You will probably not lose as many nodes as you gain on average while you’re active in the workplace, it’s the nature of our connected world. This means the amount of nodes in many networks – your network – will constantly grow. Growth is one of the key components of so-called scale-free networks.

The second key component is something called preferential attachment, which basically means, you are probably using the web search engine whose name has become synonymous with searching for things because they tend to have really good search results. New websites will do their best to show up high in that search engine’s rating, they will have even better and more relevant search results for you, and so the power of the node grows. The beautifully simple rule is: a node in a network is more likely to attach to a well-connected node than to a more isolated node.

I feel I cannot accurately convey how much I love the simplicity of that statement. In my work, I have noticed before how important it is to be connected to the people that are already well connected. Everyone knows how important it is to be well connected yourself. Now I know some very clever people have put formulas around that feeling, isn’t that great?

But there’s a catch: If all nodes start out completely equal, it’s up to chance which one gets lucky in the beginning and becomes a power node. However, when we are talking about people, not all “nodes” start out the same. People that face discrimination in their day to day life will have a harder time “attaching” in the network, or more accurately, they will have a harder time finding nodes that accept them. Which is unfair and it sucks and should not be the case. So if you are one of the well-connected in your local bubble, I feel you have a responsibility: that kind of connectedness allows you to grant critical “node-power” to others that are disadvantaged in the network. Use it wisely.