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Misunderstanding power

Definition:

Wikipedia: Zipf’s law states that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc. [1]

Related formulations, called power laws, model the size of cities, and describe energy use in animals and social network effects. Creativity and other social network effects — like crime — are more prevalant in large cities. Power laws also describe the forces governing online participation. But it is easy to forget this.

Problem: How many times have we been at a conference or workshop and heard someone say (or said ourselves) “wouldn’t it be great if this energy could be sustained all year ’round?” Or in a classroom or peer production setting, wondered why it is that everyone does not participate equally. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could increase participation?” But participation in a given population will fall off according to some power law (see Introduction to Power Laws in The Uncertainty Principle, Volume II, Issue 3). It would be an illusion to assume that everyone is coming from a similar place with regard to the various literacies and motivations that are conducive to participation.

Solution: It can be tempting to adopt a “provisionist” attitude, and say: “If we change our system we will equalize participation and access.”

Challenges: Power laws are an inherent epiphenomenon of network flows. If you can adjust the way the way the network is shaped, for example, through moderatation, then you may be able to change the “exponent” in the power law. But even so, “equality” remains a largely abstract notion. Note, also, that participation in a given activity tends to fall off over time. It’s easy to imagine writing a hit song or a best selling novel, but hard to pull this off, because it takes sustained effort over time. See the anti-pattern Magical Thinking.

What’s Next: As Paul Graham wrote about programming languages — programmers are typically “satisfied with whatever language they happen to use, because it dictates the way they think about programs” — so too are people often “satisfied” with their social environments, because these tend to dictate the way they think and act in life. Nevertheless, if we put our minds to it, we can become more “literate” in the patterns that make up our world and the ways we can effect change.

References:

  1. Zipf’s law. (2013). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

  2. Graham, P. (2001). Beating the averages.

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