Charles Arthur On Technology

'If you are digitally promiscuous enough, your computerised little black book will start to overflow'

Jooi Ito is a blogger with friends. Lots of friends. So many, in fact, that the other day, when he tried to add one more to his electronic tally - as measured on the "social software" system Orkut, run by Google, he got a rather disconcerting message. "You have 1,024 friends," said the e-mail. "You can only have up to 1,000 friends. Before you can add more friends, you need to remove friends."

Jooi Ito is a blogger with friends. Lots of friends. So many, in fact, that the other day, when he tried to add one more to his electronic tally - as measured on the "social software" system Orkut, run by Google, he got a rather disconcerting message. "You have 1,024 friends," said the e-mail. "You can only have up to 1,000 friends. Before you can add more friends, you need to remove friends."

Short of hiring a hitman, what is a person to do? Calling the limit "the edge of Orkut", Ito nevertheless noted in a post-on on his blog (at http://joi.ito.com/archives/2004/12/19/the_edge_of_orkut.html) that the event "reminded me a bit of real life. I now need to forget someone every time I meet someone I want to remember because I'm having a buffer overflow on my people recognition memory".

You know you're down among the geeks when people describe the workings and, especially, failings of their brains in terms of computer processes. In fact, your brain can remember everyone you've met, and their names; the difficulty is recalling who, and which name matches which face. Some are better at this than others; the actor Alan Alda suggests using mnemonics, linking something memorable to the person's name and face. "The only problem," he once remarked, "is that you find yourself saying, 'Ah, how are you Mr caulifower head?'."

Orkut (www.orkut.com) is one of dozens of "social software" systems that sprang up last year (along with sites such as Friendster.com and Linkedin.com) and have signed up tens of millions of users who somehow expected that we could let computers mediate our personal and professional friendships just as we have our viewing of news and e-mail.

Here's how it works. You sign up and search for people with common interests, or whom you know IRL (in real life). Then you look at the friends of your friends, and send them invitations offering to "link" to them, and thus expand your circle of "friends". If you're digitally promiscuous enough, you'll soon be bumping up against the limits of the network, and your computerised little black book will overflow and earn stern messages from the database manager. This isn't quite what Orkut meant when it said: "It is our mission to help you create a closer, more intimate network of friends. We hope to put you on the path to social bliss soon".

Another thing that reveals that Orkut is the creation of computer nerds rather than social scientists is that number, 1,024, which clearly triggered something in its computerised nervous system. If you're not computer literate, it's just another number. But to computer people, it's an ordinal number: two raised to the 10th power, or the maximum number of values you can record with 10 binary digits. The makers of Orkut clearly didn't expect anyone to have more than 1,000 friends, and only allocated a 10-bit number to the counter. Had they gone further, and offered a 16-bit binary number, then Ito could have carried on until he had 65,536 friends. Crank it up to 32 bits, and he could have had 4.2 billion friends - almost all of the planet.

However, social software has hit the same roadblock that so much software hits: it cannot adapt to the way that humans interact, and people are actually very obstinate about altering their behaviour. We rather like the procedures that we have developed over millions of years of evolution.

Take my own experience. After Christmas, my family took a brief break at a hotel, where the other guests happened to include a former senior executive of this paper. We got talking, and I met his partner (who is a senior writer on another national paper). Then we began talking about mutual friends, and realised that two professional violinists whom we knew separately had probably worked together at some point. "We must ask them," we agreed.

So, what was the outcome of those conversations? I had met someone whom I'd only known by name before, and discovered a potential new friend (the violinist the executive knows). Well, that's hardly 1,024 people, is it? No, but the difference is that I'll value and feel more confident about following up that contact than I would one from a random e-mail.

www.charlesarthur.com/blog

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