I think there is a compelling reason why everyone ought to blog/tweet/social network or leave some sort of digital trail. As Seth Godin puts it,

the word blog is irrelevant, what’s important is that it is now common, and will soon be expected, that every intelligent person (and quite a few unintelligent ones) will have a media platform where they share what they care about with the world.

My own revelation in this regard came as a result of reading Clay Shirky’s description of the Birthday Paradox and then following a link sent by Christine Prefontaine to her recently published Network Communications Guide.

The Birthday Paradox

When I began to understand the concept of network effects and technologies that are subject to network effects a few years ago, it profoundly changed the way I thought about mobile and Internet networks and their potential importance.  At the risk of oversimplifying, products or services subject to networks effects are those that increase in value the more people use  them.  Telephone networks and the Internet are two prime examples.  For example, the more people subscribed to your telephone network, the more people you can phone and consequently the more valuable your phone becomes to you.  This is a deceptively simple concept, the impact of which I have failed many times to adequately convey to others. Sigh.

That is why it was a pleasure to read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in which he explains network effects in a much more visceral manner through the use of a mathematical conundrum called The Birthday Paradox.  He asks you to imagine you are standing in a queue for a movie with 35 other people and the person next to you offers to bet you fifty dollars that two people in queue were born on the same day of the year. Do you take the bet?  Intuitively yes.  The odds would appear to be in your favour but in reality the chances of two people sharing the same birthday in that queue is over 80%.  We tend to think only of our own connections to other people but networks are about everyone’s connection to everyone else.  Each user added to a network increases the number of connections proportional to the square of the number of people in the network.  Consider that the 1001st new user on a network adds a thousand new connections, the 1,000,001st new user, a million new connections.

The Birthday Innovation

Now imagine that we are not talking about birthdays but rather pieces of a puzzle, your own personal puzzle.  Each of us has a puzzle (or more accurately many puzzles) we are trying to solve whether personal or professional, individual or collective.  The message of the Birthday Paradox for me was that the odds are very good when networks get very large,  that somebody out there, somewhere has the piece of the puzzle that you need to make your puzzle clearer, more complete picture or indeed a completely new picture. Likewise, chances are, you hold that same potential for someone else.  The Birthday Innovation argues that the odds are good, and getting better all the time, that there is someone out there who has the very piece of experience, know-how, insight that will move your game forward.


However, the Birthday Innovation is only a potential connection, potential innovation.  The existence of the right connection, of that someone who holds the key to your puzzle is meaningless unless there is some means of finding them.  And that is why leaving digital breadcrumbs, a trail that others can follow, is so important.  Blogging, twittering, and social networking et al open up the potential for those connections to be made.  Blogging can help people discover you, who may have that next piece of expertise, experience, know-how that opens up new possibilities for you.  Your digital trail also then becomes a resource for others.  You may hold puzzle pieces for others that you are completely unaware of.  Innovation within any given discipline often comes from outside, from seemingly unrelated fields.   Failing to blog or microblog or even participate in a public mailing list means that the world is cut off from your learning.

Transcending Space and Time

I am particularly fond of Jan Chipchase’s description in his Ted Talk of mobile phones as being able to “transcend space and time”.   Transcending space is obvious but it isn’t as obvious that mobile phones transcend time as well by allowing people to access voicemail and text messages when it is convenient for them.  Sounds very StarTrekky, transcending space and time, but I think is this particularly apt because we underestimate just how powerful connectedness is.   This is obviously true for the Internet as well and the notion of transcending time as well is important to the Birthday Innovation because it is not just whatever ideas you have now that are potential connections to everyone else on the network but all of the ideas you have ever had since you began leaving a digital trail.  What you are thinking now, what you thought in your last job, your last contract, your last trip to Ouagadougou.  This is necessarily a multiplier of the Birthday Paradox that makes the Birthday Innovation even more likely.

Failure to Blog

So what happens if you don’t get out there and start leaving a digital trail?  Nothing much really, at least for you.  Well-networked people and organisations will move faster, adapt more quickly and find themselves in the right place at the right time more often and you will wonder at how they got so lucky.  The answer is simple, it was their birthday.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data