Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Ning hits 100,000 networks

In his book At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman creates a framework for predicting whether autocatalysis will occur. Autocatalysis is a form of emergence whereby molecules or other agents catalyze the creation of other molecules or agents in a manner that builds on itself. Stuart uses this framework to construct a theory of the emergence of life. His approach builds on complexity theory and is related to the "New Kind of Science" tools developed by Stephen Wolfram.

Stuart posits 3 main conditions for autocatalysis, as I recall. There must be (i) a large enough number of agents; (ii) enough diversity among agents; and (iii) the right number of connections between agents (too many connections between agents is as bad as too few). His model provides actual coefficients for these variables for certain types of systems. I have always thought that it might be possible to apply the same theory to fields such as economics and the emergence of cities.

The Ning platform has now reached what may be a critical mass in terms of number of agents. Ning's founder, Marc Andreesen, says in a recent post that people have now created over 100,000 social networks on Ning. He also says that there is huge diversity in the nature of the networks being formed: some are small networks of friends formed around an event - say a birthday party. Others are larger networks formed around an affinity - say for a particular sports team.

The interesting question is the optimal number of connections *between* networks on Ning. Marc argues that the social networks themselves are starting to interact. If Ning can surpass critical mass in terms of numbers and diversity, and settle on the right number of links among networks, it could potentially become as big or bigger than Facebook.

Just like Stuart's theory, the jury is still out. But it is worth keeping an eye on Ning.