Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facebook is Not The Network

I wanted to tackle one of the more basic issues with the Sneakernet pretty early on: how do I route a message to someone?  I mean, normally sending e-mail, I know the persons's e-mail address and host name, so I just send a message to, and presto!  All the little automatic switches and routers magically make the message appear at his end of the Internet.  (Okay, it's not quite that simple, but to most of us the Internet is a Black Box.)  On the Sneakernet, it's a little more complicated.  And because of that, we're going to go old school on this one.

Forget Web 2.0-- this is more like Web 0.2.

See, the thing is, computers used to have to connect directly to each other to share information over UUCP.  That's fine if I'm sending something directly to someone else, but sometimes I want them to PSST!  PASS IT ON.  And the way I would explain how to pass it on was by sending the mail with a BANG PATH.  Essentially the notation inserts a ! (bang) in between each node on the network that the message has to go through.

Let's say I wanted to send a song I recorded to my friend Steve.  Since I know how to dial his home, I'll hook up my dial-up modem, set the headset in the cradle, and we're off at a rocket speed of 150 baud.  Like I said, old school.  And at 150 baud, grab some coffee, because this is going to take a while.  There's really no reason to construct a bang path for this scenario, but here it is:


Steve shares the song with a friend.  Because my music is so awesome, now Steve's friend Chris wants to send something back to me for critique.  The bang path now becomes the following:


Pretty simple still.  But let's say I have Lexi over to my house, and she has some comments for Chris?  For me to contact Chris, I just needed to be able to pass something by way of Steve.  But for Lexi to do so, she's got to go through two people.  Even more problematic, where both Chris and I knew Steve, Lexi doesn't know Steve or Chris, and Chris doesn't know me or Lexi.  But if we document a path between each other, the feedback can get there.


Now let's say Lexi's father-in-law Abe has a friend named Dan whose sister Karen knows a guy in Hollywood named Kevin who wants to use Chris's song in an upcoming movie.  Oy gevalt.  It's a pretty tenuous connection, but with the bang path, we at least have a chance of the message getting from Chris to Kevin:


Now let's assume that the Kevin in question is none other than the illustrious Kevin Bacon.  Can we count the degrees of separation here?  While bang paths were intended to pass messages between computers, they also are remarkably useful for describing a particular route through a social network.  And as described here, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is essentially a graph problem, using the social network as a big graph.

It also turns out that people are already adapting mathematical graph theory into analysis of the social graph.  I'll give you one guess as to who is making a killing off of this analysis...  FACEBOOK!  And good for them-- they jumped on a neat idea and are getting rewarded with the moneys.  No hard feelings.  But Facebook is not The Network.  Facebook analyzes and displays The Network for easy observation and use, but Facebook is not The Network.

We are.

And that's the key of the Folk Sneakernet-- just finding out ways to utilize our own person-to-person connections (Yes, P2P) to begin sharing things with a handshake rather than with a pulse of electrons.

So my message me!you!yourFriends is this: the social network is ours already and always has been.  We just need to adopt practices that let us use The Network in any way we choose.

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