What Networks Whisper

“In the words of Paul Graham, “every city whispers something.” So when you choose to live in a city, you’re also choosing what kind of whispers you want to hear. Even if they’re subliminal, the whispers of cities are so influential that innovation has historically been clustered in small pockets. The cities we inhabit strongly influence our odds of success. As Paul Graham wrote: “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot… Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

Now, the same thing is happening on social networks: each one whispers something. Twitter tells you to be witty, Reddit tells you to be clever, Facebook tells you to share your everyday life, Instagram tells you to be glamorous, and TikTok tells you to be entertaining. 

Social networks are cities for the digital world.”

-David Perell, “What Networks Whisper.davidperell.com. February 2021

Map of the Food Supply Chain by County in the United States

“Food consumption and production are separated in space through flows of food along complex supply chains. These food supply chains are critical to our food security, making it important to evaluate them. However, detailed spatial information on food flows within countries is rare. The goal of this paper is to estimate food flows between all county pairs within the United States. To do this, we develop the Food Flow Model, a data-driven methodology to estimate spatially explicit food flows. The Food Flow Model integrates machine learning, network properties, production and consumption statistics, mass balance constraints, and linear programming. Specifically, we downscale empirical information on food flows between 132 Freight Analysis Framework locations (17 292 potential links) to the 3142 counties and county-equivalents of the United States (9869 022 potential links). Subnational food flow estimates can be used in future work to improve our understanding of vulnerabilities within a national food supply chain, determine critical infrastructures, and enable spatially detailed footprint assessments.”

-Xiaowen Lin, et al. “Food flows between counties in the United States.” IOP Science. July 26, 2019.

h/t Fast Company.

Going Critical

What I learned from the simulation above is that there are ideas and cultural practices that can take root and spread in a city that simply can’t spread out in the countryside. (Mathematically can’t.) These are the very same ideas and the very same kinds of people. It’s not that rural folks are e.g. “small-minded”; when exposed to one of these ideas, they’re exactly as likely to adopt it as someone in the city. Rather, it’s that the idea itself can’t go viral in the countryside because there aren’t as many connections along which it can spread…

…In an urban center, each person could see upwards of 1000 other people every day — on the street, in the subway, at a crowded restaurant, etc. In a rural area, in contrast, each person may see only a couple dozen others. Based on this difference alone, the city is capable of sustaining more fashion trends. And only the most compelling trends — the ones with the highest transmission rates — will be able to take hold outside of the city…We tend to think that if something’s a good idea, it will eventually reach everyone, and if something’s a bad idea, it will fizzle out. And while that’s certainly true at the extremes, in between are a bunch of ideas and practices that can only go viral in certain networks…

…Finally, we can apply this lens to the internet, by choosing to model it as a huge and very densely networked city. Not surprisingly, there are many new kinds of culture flourishing online that simply couldn’t be sustained in purely meatspace networks. Most of these are things we want to celebrate: niche hobbies, better design standards, greater awareness of injustices, etc. But it’s not all gravy. Just as the first cities were a hotbed for diseases that couldn’t spread at lower population densities, so too is the internet a breeding ground for malignant cultural forms like clickbait, fake news, and performative outrage.”

-Kevin Simler, “Going Critical.” meltingasphalt.com. May 13, 2019.

Interesting throughout.