19 clicks or less

19 clicks or less February 26, 2013

Right now there are more than 14 billion pages on the Web, containing more than a trillion documents (videos, images, etc.). And according to Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási:

Like actors in Hollywood connected by Kevin Bacon, from every single one of these pages you can navigate to any other in 19 clicks or less.

The Royal Society referenced Barabási’s 19-click rule last week, which Smithsonian.com took as a report on new findings. They’ve since corrected that — Barabási first proposed this back in 1999. But it’s not out-of-date news, since what he found showed that this 19-click rule would continue to apply no matter how much the Web grows:

Barabási credits this “small world” of the Web to human nature — the fact that we tend to group into communities, whether in real life or the virtual world. The pages of the Web aren’t linked randomly, he says: They’re organized in an interconnected hierarchy of organizational themes, including region, country and subject area.

Interestingly, this means that no matter how large the Web grows, the same interconnectedness will rule. Barabási analyzed the network looking at a variety of levels — examining anywhere from a tiny slice to the full 1 trillion documents — and found that regardless of scale, the same 19-click-or-less rule applied.

I find this reassuring. The Web contains a great deal of misinformation, legend, BS, spin, error and outright falsehood. But on the Web, no mistake is ever more than 19 clicks away from its correction, and no lie is ever more than 19 clicks away from the truth.

That underscores the importance of the warning we read the other day from J.R. Daniel Kirk:

One of the worst mistakes we can make, especially in a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t, is to affirm a vision of a single-voiced scripture that fails to correspond to the text we have actually been given.

Jesus was warning against hypocrisy and duplicity when he said in Luke 12:

Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

But that warning also applies to those who would attempt to contain or control others by containing or controlling the truth. That’s harder to do when the truth is only 19-clicks-or-less away.

And that’s also why I think Elizabeth Scalia may be partly right when she asks if, “Benedict’s recent entry into Twitter has had anything to do with the seeming abruptness” of his abdication.

Scalia argues that:

When … Benedict finally logged on to Twitter he got to see firsthand the sort of raw, unhinged anti-Catholic hatred so active within social media threads. … It must have been a shocking revelation to encounter the vilest expressions of hatred, the intentional voicings of malice and evil hopes, flung squarely at the Holy Father, in real time.

A hoped-for encounter with the faithful also brought an encounter with something wicked. It exposed Benedict to, perhaps, a reality he had formerly been spared.

And she says that this exposure to the ugliness of some social media compelled Benedict to abdicate the papacy in order to devote himself to prayer over the wicked state of the world.

Photo by Eigenes Werk, via Wikipedia.

That is one possibility. It’s possible that, as Scalia argues, Benedict caught his first glimpse of the vitriol of trolls and YouTube comment sections and 4chan and, recoiling in appropriate horror, chose to devote himself full-time to prayerful “penance for the church, and for the world — for those of us who cannot or will not do it, ourselves.”

But Benedict has spent his life studying theology. Not even the most hateful local newspaper comment thread or the vilest sub-sub-sub-reddit ought to have surprised him. The manifestations of human sinfulness revealed in even the ugliest corners of the Web are something that any theologian as well-read as Benedict would have expected.

But that wasn’t the only “reality he had formerly been spared” that Benedict would have encountered when he “finally logged on to Twitter.” The more surprising reality for someone like him who has spent so many decades within the bubble of unquestioned authority would be the harsh reality that most people do not afford him the extreme deference he expects and demands.

That, I think, would have been very surprising indeed for someone who lives in a world of thrones and hierarchies and rings that are literally kissed. If there was a “shocking revelation” from the pope joining Twitter, that was probably it.

Al Mohler, who I sometimes joke acts like he’s the Southern Baptist pope, is more aware that the Web — and the world — is full of people who may not be awed by the spiritual authority of church leaders. In his post today on “The Christian Leader in the Digital Age,” he seems to recognize the way that the Web’s bounty of accessible information threatens the authority of those whose power has rested on controlling that access:

The Internet has also disrupted the stable hierarchies of the old information age. A teenager with a computer can put out a blog that looks more authoritative than the blog written by the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation – and perhaps read by more people as well. Most of what appears on the Internet is unedited, and much of it is unhelpful. Some is even worse.

And yet, if you are not present on the Internet, you simply do not exist, as far as anyone under 30 is concerned. …

The digital world is huge and complicated and explosive. It contains wonders and horrors and everything in between. And it is one of the most important arenas of leadership our generation will ever experience. If you are satisfied to lead from the past, stay out of the digital world. If you want to influence the future, brace yourself and get in the fast lane.

I give Mohler credit for bracing himself and jumping in. But I’m still not sure he fully realizes the implications of living in “a day and age where media will tell people the truth if we don’t.”

 


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