Monthly Archives: January 2004

Culture, Structure, Rational

More from Market and Community.


This delightful drawing explains it all. This outlines three approachs for how to explain the way that individuals select their actions. In one model culture via communties guide individuals to make ethical choices about what they do. In a second model rational self interest intermediated by markets allow folks to select from a choice of actions. In a third model rules established by institutions (or in my view networks and groups) frame up the behaviors of individuals.


All that reminds me of a number of three ways of paritioning the world; for example Hirschman’s book Exit Voice and Loyality with

  • Exit -> Market
  • Voice -> Community, and
  • Loyality -> Structure.

Markets and Community then goes on to introduce this nice little framework:

All Together Now

Because I’m interested in how standards emerge I have a few models in my noodle. The classic model is that the king tells everybody the rules and they obediently follow them. The institutional model is that powerful institutions act like little kings in their dominions and then negotiate with each other when necessary. The bottom up model holds that exchange standards emerge spontaniously from pairs engaging in exchange and then others mimic those behaviors until groups emerge with similar behaviors. These groups a little like institutions but since their governance tends to be very diffuse the accumulation of new members is more due to network effects and less transparent influencing devices than then top down commands.

The bottom up standardization is somewhat more interesting to me than the top down. Open Source for example tends to be a bottom up phenomenon, and the marketing of platforms and tool kits tends in that direction as well. The bottom up ones are also the common pattern as technology disrupts from below and suddenly large populations of new players enter a domain.

No surprise then that I’m reading the early chapters of Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven Strogatz In these chapters he describes a model that he along with a colleague developed for explaining how a population of cells, insects, whatever might come to beat in sync. The model began with an observation that in a number of natural systems, fireflies and the heart’s pacemaker cells for example, fall into synch. If you look into the mechanism of individual cells they have an oscillator that generates a beat. That beat is the beat of the heart cells, the applause of a audience, the flash of the firefly.

If you get a dozen fireflies (actually you need south-east Asian fireflies) in a room and let them go they strobe rhythmically but randomly at first. After a bit they begin strobe in groups and then in a bit they all strobe in synch. What drives them into synch? Etymologists had figured out that some species fireflies react to the flash of other flies by advancing their oscillator while other species retard it just a bit. This slight coupling turns out to be enough to bring them all into synch.

That turns out to be all you need to get these system to synch. Well almost.

The proof is a very pretty thing.

The first part of the proof is pretty simple. If two ossolators get into synch with each other that’s that. They won’t fall out of synch. They call that absorbtion. The individual cells, fireflies, etc. are absorbed into a group that all behaves the same. You can see now why I’m interested since that sounds like community or standards talk. The act of absorbtion is equivalent to the concept of sticky in a business model, or switching costs in a standards discussion.

The second part of the proof involves a beautiful bit of geometric thinking. If you have a set of fireflies, toilets, etc. You can make a geometric space with the firing time of one of the as the origin and for each otherone he’s off on one axis of your space some distance from that origin depending on how out of synch he is. The state of the system is then the point in the N space defined by those cell’s offsets from our favorite cell.

Now imagine that the system doesn’t synchronizes. That means there is some set of points in the N space that are “terrible.” Each time our favorite cell fires the state of the system moves to another point in the space. For these terrible systems they obviously just have to move from terrible point to terrible point. For my purposes such systems aren’t “terrible” they are just ” nonstandardized” system; or systems that fail to form groups.

They were able to prove was that whenever our favorite cell transforms the state of the system from one set (terrible or not) the new set is larger than the old set. Which, if you think about it for a moment, means that either all the points in the space are terrible, or none of them are.

It only works for certain kinds of lightly coupled rhythmic systems will come into synch, some won’t; but it doesn’t depend on the initial system state.

To see which kind come into synch and which don’t you need to visualize the inside of the blinker a little. Presumably inside the blinker some tension builds up until finally it triggers and the flash is emitted. You could plot tension v.s. time on a graph. Maybe it’s a straight line from start to finish. Maybe the tension rises fast at the beginning and then it becomes cautious and slows down before it goes pop. Or alternately it goes slow at first and then in a fit of enthusiasm it rushes into the blink. The systems that are start fast and then grow careful; those are the ones that synchronize. Because they spend a lot of their cycle type nearly triggered the little kick from the loose coupling is enough to push them over.

For my purposes, thinking about exchange standards (for example handshakes), then the repeating oscillation is the repeated application of the standard. Each time two people execute a coordinated handshake they are in sync. If other people observe that event and adjust their behavior a bit to increase their alignment with the ritualized handshake then you have a very similar system to the one described above. To get a curve shape similar to decelerate as you approach full – well I’ll admit I can’t quite see how that fits – but possibly the analogy is that exchange partners approach quickly at first but close the deal much more slowly.

Neat huh? Clearly is has something to says something about when groups and standards are more likely to form.

No King Required.

Markets & Communities

I’m a little concerned that after reading this two sentence paragraph:

Again, and not to overstate the case, what characterizes this reading of society is the existence of principles of justice, of the idea of legitimate (and by implication of illegitimate) action and so, of necessity, of rules governing market, or better exchange behavior, that are themselves not based on, or rooted in, the relations of exchange themselves (supply and demand, existing prestige orientations, and so on). Hence the existance of rules (already beyond the game, metarules, which is precisely what makes the principles of legitimation rules of justice) that are in a sense outside of society, which is, in turn, what has given them their authority (as oposed to the purely coercive propery rules that are only immament to society and it’s exchange relations).

this morning at the library my reaction was: “Exactly!”

Internalized values, justice, legitimation, sacred, authority: all the same conversation.

voice of a group blog

I’ve never been to a rave and I don’t really want to but I saw one in that horrible movie. Who’s in charge? It is a question that comes up.

When people ask that about open source I like to tease them. I say it’s kind of like what happens if you put a bunch of people together in any group. Pretty soon they all start spontanously dressing a like, using the same cliches, making fun of people outside. It’s in the nature of things, like the rythmic clapping of an audience. I gather that rythmic clapping is somewhat more common in European audiences than American ones.

Standard behaviors can emerge entirely bottom up. Fact is, given the way that power-law network tend to emerge out of all kinds of unregulated linking up, I’m beginning to think it’s more the rule than the exception.

It’s actually kind of amazing the way a lot of open source projects seem to
spontaneously organize. You create a body of code; you add a half a dozen interested parties; after a bit they all start rattling around in something that approaches – just a bit – a synchronized manner. Who’s in charge? The code repository?

In the fractal nature of these kinds of discussions I got to noticing this at three scales all at the same time. First you have the ongoing to-and-fro-ing about “what is a blog.” Which is of course the conversation about what is the emerging standard blog. Second you have the question as it applies to an indivdual and his blog. There you might call it “finding your voice.” Some people’s voice is long tedious essays; others are tightly written humorous observations; some like to write little provocative Zen koans; while yet others have found a voice that consists of just revealing a stream of URLs they find interesting. Part of the tension in the “what is a blog” conversation arises from the way it does the violence of catagorization to individual voices. Who in charge? Where to you get off announcing that the annual christmas letter isn’t a form of blogging.

Group blogs are an fun kind of intermediate level. It’s the middle class! Sometimes easy going, tollerant, urban. Sometimes uptight, gated community, suburban. I’d not noticed the way that if you look at a few group blogs; like many-to-many or crooked timber you can clearly see that the particpants have begun to adopt a similar voice. Comming to them fresh you might assume that they gathered together because they shared a common voice; but if you read some of their individual writing from years past you notice that they had either wider ranges or even entirely different centers of mass. I suspect if you just measured the size of the postings you’s see a kind of learning to clap in unison begins to emerge.

Over on the brand spanking new Planet Apache this process is particularly stark. First off we have a mess-o-people posting how have already developed a voice over the last few years. Second we are aggregating those entirely automaticly from their individual blogs; so to first order there is no reason to expect these voices to begin to standardize. Third the Apache communities I’ve particpated in have been particularly good at remaining both tolerant and diverse – which would suggest there is less social pressure toward a common voice. It’s very much in the best interest of a healthy open source project to remain like that; otherwise you make it a lot harder to bring on new blood. But then on the otherhand the Apache communities I’ve particpated in have been extremely narrowly focused, very much communities of limited liablity. That’s because they focus down onto the working code; often have no other scope. That suggests two things; that these folks have a strong expectation that planet apache will focus down on something, probably the work of the various projects, and secondly that these folks aren’t fluent in what happens if you don’t limit the liablity.

I have good friend who drew my attention to a behavior he calls “monkey see monkey do;” i.e. that we primates like to try things. We watch the other monkeys and then we go “Oh, that looks like fun. I think I’ll try that!” And, it is fun. I certainly tried blogging for much those same reasons.

It will be interesting to see what happens at planet apache. Maybe we will wander into a common voice there. Maybe we will remain “just a bunch a guys.” Maybe some people will choose to submit a partial feed of their own blog not because there are guidelines for the planet’s content but because they decide they want to avoid the subtle temptation to conform any conventions that might begin to emerge there. Certainly some people like to settle into a framework. Who knows?

Hopefully we won’t be tempted to answer the question: “Who’s in charge!” Or was Mark Slemko once so wisely said: “That would be wrong, except when it’s not.” is neat.

What’s in it for me? I get an account where I can collect bookmarks and access them from all over the web. It’s easy, since I can add bookmarks to your account using a bookmarklet. So I can type cmd-2 and hit a button I’ve saved another URL.

What in it for us? We all get to see what other folks are taking note of. For example I can discover that other folks that have taken note of the same bookmarks I’ve noted and then look at other things they are noticing.

All the stuff you’d expect: categories, what’s new, popular lists; and of course people have built hacks that complement it for automaticly capturing the URLs from blog postings, or embedding your recent entries into your blog’s home page.

It’s a very interesting example of how people will volunteer to reveal stuff and that a hub can create a network effect, which creates value out of collective action, and generates assorted complements around that hub.

I gather this is the work of the same guy that did the geourl stuff I pointed out a long time ago. A similarly sweet lite idea.

Give it a try!

  • Create an account.
  • Put the bookmarklets on your toolbar.
  • Add some pages from your browser bookmarks and history.
  • Join the fun.

Open Source, Firms, and Standards

I’ve learned that when people ask me in a puzzled manner “How’s that work?” regarding open source I shouldn’t answer until I’ve let them reveal what aspect of the enterprise bewilders them. For example I had one SVP who’s key question was “How do you get along?” I had a guy who’s primary interest was how do we solve the distribution, or as he put it shipping, problem. After collecting a few dozen of these I’ve come to think it’s a little odd that people assume the greatest mystery about open source is the revealing secrets, or the ip rights issue, or the volunteerism.

The dynamics of open source at the level of firms is particularly interesting to me since it bleeds into another area I’m curious about. How do standards emerge, particularly industrial exchange standards?

The simple model for that stuff is that buyers and sellers rendezvous in markets and since standards make that easier there are network effects which will accelerate the adoption of a few standards. It is simpler if we all use the same weights and measures and it is safer drive on the smae side of the road.

Buyers, sellers, market makers (and their agents) that can consolidate enough power to push standards to emerge will do so. The realist will point out at this point those with that power will advocate choices that benefit them and possible disadvantage than the other players.

In the absence of extreme market power the player will find it advantagous to negotiate a standard and advocate it’s adoption by all parties. Both stages are key, in fact you really have to solve three problems. You have to find representatives of all parties that can bring the right talents to bear on the design problem. You have to muddle thru all the negotiation and coordination problems of getting the standard designed, implemented, and maintained. Finally you have have to solve the advocacy, adoption, distribution, customer support problems.

The good news is that we have a carrot and a stick to make this happen. The carrot is improved exchange efficency, in many cases exchanges become possible that were otherwise impossible. The stick is the fear that other players will abuse their market power to create standards that disadvantage us.

Open source provides a reasonably good framework for working on these problems. The Internet makes it a lot easier to find talent, in particular it gives you a huge sample space draw from and then and makes it easier for the talent to volunteer (no travel!). We have stumbled on some tricks for solving the coordination problem. Optimistic concurrency for example. The net also makes it easier to solve the propagation problem as do the open source licenses/pricing. Working with information goods in an age of vastly increasing communication makes all this a possible.

Any firm involved in any exchange need to think about this. For example if your one of a thousand firms processing phone bills you can a) build it yourself, b) buy it from a vendor, or c) join/create an open source project to do it. Which one is best isn’t obvious. There is a lot of risk in building it yourself. There is the danger of becoming locked into a vendor if you decide to buy it. Coordinating an open source project, or any standards setting exercise, is a huge pain.

If you think of the problem as a game with moves it gets even more interesting. Assume, for example, you have built the solution yourself. In that situation you might find it advantageous to open source it first. It could reduce your development costs. It could force vendors to lower their prices. It could help to assure the industry “does it your way” instead of some other way that would be costly to switch to.

If your a vendor of such software you might want to move toward a more open version of the software for different reasons. If your customers are afraid of lock in this addresses their pain point. If you competitor goes first you could be toast as they become the default answer to the problem. If your customers start improving the software you can capture the value they create.

While open source or standards are dominate strategies in lots of information markets they doesn’t win all the time because the problems (talent, coordination, adoption) are still hard. We are getting better at all three though. It’s only just getting started.

Friends of Moore’s Law

Moore’s law isn’t the only rapidly growing technology curve. It has at least two peers. Disk space and communications. These stand on a rich substrate that is equally fecund. A soil of component parts: displays, batteries, memory, semiconductors and of social structures – firms, standards, technologists. These are not the only forces reshaping out future; because above all this the pool of talent that can be brought together to work on any given task is exploding.

This is the plate techtonics that pushes up (and down) continents of new applications and businesses. Meanwhile the differing rates that these elements progress helps to shape the topology of that future.

As we discover better schemes for coordinating the work of huge pools of talent the rate of displacement of which Wikipedia v.s. Britanica is one example will accelerate.

In another example if communications moves much faster than diskspace then we would rapidly reach a state where fetching information was a dominate strategy vs. local storage, caching or synchronization.

This paper: pdf from 2001 by Coffman and Odlyzko has a lot of interesting things to say about all this.

They conclude that: both disk space and network bandwidth are doubling ever year; realtime data (voice and video) won’t provide enough data to become the dominate form of data traffic. So we will continue to cache a lot of data locally. They say plenty of other other interesting things as well.