Neurons in the internet

by Michael Alderete on 2/8/2003

I’ve written before about the interesting things that are taking place on the internet today. In one of the prior postings, I referenced an article that compared the structures forming on the internet to the trails that ants lay down when hunting for food, which eventually build up very sophisticated (and efficient) food gathering behavior.

But two articles over the last two weeks made me think of something different, namely, that the links that are spontaneously happening between the many active websites (mostly blogs) are similar to the formation of “neuronal paths.” We are building a giant, global brain.

The first article was Ben Hammersley’s Trackback in the Saddle Again, which describes quite a number of different ways that articles can semi-automatically form linkages to each other. The second was an interview with Cameron Marlow, the creator of Blogdex, and in particular his Social Network Explorer. Both articles illustrate how complex structures are being formed in the nodes (sites) and paths (links) between nodes.

So my thought today was, blogs and news sites are the neurons. Links from one to another are the neuronal paths, or connections between neurons. (TrackBack and its ilk are especially cool here, because the connections are two-way.) And services like Blogdex, Daypop, Social Network Explorer, and especially Google, are how the paths are reinforced to create “preferred” pathways through the internet, which alter future queries and explorations by making those paths more likely to be reused.

What’s especially neat about some of the services like Daypop is that the pathways are reinforced not only by people publishing on the web, but also by people who are just browsing the web. That is, when you follow a link off the Daypop Top 40, it records it, and that will influence how popular that link is, and therefore how many other people will see it, how long it will be around, etc.

These structures are certainly influencing how people think, if only because news stories are now frequently emerging in the blogsphere first, and once they’ve become sufficiently interesting and widespread, they cross over to the mainstream media. One could make a case that that’s how Trent Lott fell from grace.

Powerful stuff, but it’s a long way from having a giant brain. But that’s OK, on the scale of things, websites vs. neurons, there’s not enough nodes on the internet yet. Google indexes about 3 billion web pages today, but most of those don’t participate in the kinds of services described above. Blogdex and Daypop each index less than 20,000 blogs or news sites. So we’re talking pretty small numbers, today. There are thought to be 100 billion neurons in a human brain.

So our “giant” brain probably won’t be waking up and taking over the world tomorrow.

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