Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Social networks supporting innovation

The New Scientist has an article claiming that social networking stymies innovation:
...certain patterns of social interaction make radical innovation more likely. Bold ideas are typically incompletely formed when first conceived and easily shot down by criticism. Hence, they emerge more readily in communities in which individuals work mostly in small and relatively isolated groups, giving their ideas time and space to mature.
I'm not sure I agree with that. Radical innovation can flourish in a small, isolated group, but there are plenty of examples where radical innovation flourishes in a larger, well connected group - pretty much every successful open source project contains some element of radical innovation. And survivorship bias suggests we should consider the myriad of unseen examples where innovation failed in small, isolated groups.

The article continues:
The problem, says social scientist Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the National University of Singapore, is that today's software developers work in social networks in which everyone is closely linked to everyone else. "The over-abundance of connections through which information travels reduces diversity and keeps radical ideas from taking hold," he suggests.
We ought to make a distinction here between the activity of finding suitable collaborators and the process of developing the idea to maturation. Just because someone has a well established network on a social networking platform, it doesn't necessarily follow that they'll share their ideas with all their contacts there. It's far more likely that they'll cherry pick the individuals with whom they wish to collaborate - and the social networking tool will have allowed them to connect with a more diverse pool of talent, improving their ability to identify the best partners.

As for incomplete yet bold ideas being "easily shot down by criticism", I don't see much evidence of this. On the contrary I think the act of preparing an idea for public review helps the author tighten the idea considerably, to a point where - if it has merit - your audience is more likely to debate the finer points rather than shoot it down completely.

2 comments:

cdent said...

I think it really depends on your definition or sense of scale of innovation. While the open source process is quite innovative it is not generally supportive of radical new techniques, methods and tools. Open source development is almost entirely evolutionary and derivative, not revolutionary.

This isn't necessary a bad thing, lots of great stuff is happening. But innovation? Not so sure. Lot's of stuff is certainly cast as innovation but much of it is derivative of stuff that has been around for a very very long time. The big difference is plurality in the audience (which is a great thing).

BTW: Your paragraph seems to confirm the mechanism that the original article is concerned about: people shoot things down completely.

Just to be deliberately baiting (as that seemed fun last time we were in this space) I rather think that thinking that most open source projects have radical innovation speaks to a complete failure of imagination. All open source projects suck, they fail to be truly awesome and innovative, they fall short of the radical sun.

However they do tend to suck much less than lots of the alternatives, on many dimensions.

Phil Whitehouse said...

Good point. I suppose the innovation can come in the way open source is used (rather than within the software itself), or perhaps in the way it's combined with other things. Although I like to think that those with a better understanding of a variety of open source projects could point to better examples than I.

Also, it depends on your definition of radical too...

The irony of shooting down a publicly aired point of view wasn't lost on me! However if the points of view have been considered then perhaps the criticism would be constructive - and therefore supportive, rather than destructive. And we have stepped outside the social network environment, and therefore away from the topic at hand. Messy business, this...