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November 19, 2007

My Friends the Super Nodes

The super nodes are what makes undirected networks efficient. They’re responsible for everything from the apparent fact that there are no more than six degrees of separation between any two people on earth to the rapid initial spread of AIDS. Memes become fads as the super nodes propagate them. Hits don’t happen without super node attention.

A lot of the discussion Matt Blumberg, Brad Feld, Phil Hollows, Jeff Pulver, Fred Wilson and I had about the future of messaging was actually about social networks (see my post here and Fred’s here). Social graphs area fancy name for the lines which connect nodes in a depiction of a social network – a network of people. If you draw the simplest kind of social graph where there is a line between any two people who know each other, you’ll find that most people have less than the average number of connections while there are a few people who each have a huge number of connections: these are the super nodes.

You know who they are in real life: they’re the people who always know someone for you to contact whether it’s a job or a soul mate you’re looking for. They know everybody you know and they know lots of people in the place you’re about to visit as well as some people in the place you’ve just been. They’re gregarious (it’s easy for them because, when they do meet someone new, they always have friends in common).

Us average joe nodes tend to cluster: we and the circle of people we know all know each other and not many people outside the cluster. Turns out in networking theory that one of the reasons the super nodes are so important is that they have friends all over the place. So an idea – or a disease – jumps from cluster to cluster via super nodes. You need these long connections if you’re looking for a job because you already know most of the people your friends know and you wouldn’t still be looking if they had a good opening for you – but your friend the super node knows people in other clusters who may be looking for someone just like you.

In cyber-life they have zillions of friends on Facebook, their blogs are well-read, they have good Google-juice, and they are followed by hordes on twitter (and do a fair amount of twitter-following themselves). Supernodedom is a kind of celebrity but it is two way. Celebrity is watched but doesn’t necessarily see; super nodes really see and communicate with lots of other people. Otherwise they couldn’t help you make contacts.

Turns out Fred and Jeff are super nodes (not that I didn’t already know this). When Jeff met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at a conference, he immediately asked Mark for help with what for him is a pressing issue – Facebook only allows you to have 5000 friends. Terrible problem if you’re a super node.

Facebook plugins and twitter apps that work fine for you and me break when Fred or Jeff try them. No one allows for the number of friends that have to get loaded for these guys. They need special tools to let them rank and prioritize the volumes of communications they get from all these friends – and the ever increasing number of new friend requests.

If you’re writing a network application, you have to make it simple enough for the average user (who has a below-average number of connections) and robust and scalable enough for the super nodes. You DON’T want to forget about the super nodes because they’re the ones who are going to make or not make your product spread virally across the web. Moreover, if you have a network service, you always have a problem getting enough initial users to make the service valuable to new users; each super node is worth hundreds of us ordinary users in network value to a social network of any kind because of the number of connections they have and the number of people who want to connect with them.

I suspect that some social networking products may only appeal to super users. I’m trying twitter, for example, but haven’t yet found it compelling (after twelve hours). I signed up with a closed twitter account so the only people who can follow me are those I permit – that’s not the way super nodes act at all, I quickly found out. Fred and Jeff twitter all the time and have many ideas for making the service even more useful to super nodes.

Although you can have a successful network service serving mainly super nodes, you CAN’T succeed if your service is only fit for us ordinary nodes – networks don’t work right without the super nodes; the rest of us don’t have enough connections.

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