Power can be felt, even if it defies measurement. By the winter of 2012, Huffington Post could lay claim to a widely shared perception of its growing influence—the word Huffington prefers to power, which, she says, sounds “too loaded.” For better or, in the eyes of its critics, worse, Huffington Post had assumed the position of a media institution of consequence.
It was possible to draw all sorts of conclusions from data about “HuffPo,” both flattering and not. Yet two numbers in particular stood out for what they suggested about the nature of the enterprise that Huffington, Jonah Peretti, and the host of that first lunch, Ken Lerer, had built: 40 million and 19,000. The former is the number of unique visitors who came to the site in January. The latter is the number of names in Arianna Huffington’s contact list.
Each represents a network that together constituted something far greater than what each represented by itself—an aspiration: the potential power that comes to those who can build, nurture, and harness a network that is at once vast and loyal.
Emphasis on potential.
Duncan Watts, an Australian who had come to Cornell for graduate school, was 32 and possessed a disposition that could be mistaken for curmudgeonly. The rapid growth of the Web had proven a boom time for social scientists, who could suddenly perform all sorts of research on large samples in very quick time and at relatively little cost. The result was papers and conferences and books that, in Watts’ view, transformed sociologists into engineers. Time and again, people approached Watts with questions for which he could offer only the maddening answer of “it depends.” This did nothing to make sociologists popular. Nor did it stop all sorts of people from coming around, among them Ken Lerer.
Six Degrees examined the nature of what Watts called “small worlds.” The conceit—later to be adopted by fans of Kevin Bacon and playwright John Guare—had come from a 1967 experiment by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which he tracked the number of connections it would take for a letter to reach a certain recipient unknown to the original sender. The answer: six. That conclusion suggested that it was possible for any one person to reach any other person in the world by establishing a network of diminishing familiarity—start with a friend, then a friend of a friend, and so on—until the connection was complete. That premise had fueled the study of what Watts called the “science of networks,” one that dated to the 18th century and which had over time drawn in a host of scientists who seemed to think all things could be measured. And if they could be measured, they might be graphed and charted in a way that revealed patterns that could, in an ideal world, be replicated.
Perhaps the dream of creating vast networks of connected strangers was possible, if only one could identify the proper links. Or, in the parlance of the network world, making weak links into strong ones.
Watts’s book was filled with images and drawings that could be confounding—how many threads are necessary for connecting a mass of buttons in a way that created a button network?—yet tantalizing, especially, it seemed, for someone trying to find a way to take on one of the nation’s most powerful lobbies.