What Does “Many-to-Many” Mean? Some Thoughts On Social Network Structures

by on Nov.10, 2012, under general

In my last post I wrote about links and objects. Specifically, I argued that, while traditional censorship (both analog and digital) had focused on the object to be censored (a book, a painting, a website), some emergent tactics of online censorship instead function by erasing or making uninteresting paths which lead to those objects.

I wrote:

This view imagines objects sitting, not “out there” in the open world, but rather entangled at the intersection of the routes which lead to and away from it.

Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about this view which I am developing, because it changes some of the other ways in which I conceptualize the collection of social practices and technological protocols we call “The Internet.”

On the one hand, it’s painfully obvious to observe that websites have links to them. Duh. One could argue that the defining feature of the Internet is the fact that it is, well, a network. Not just a network, for that matter, but a network of networks, with its single most salient feature being that it is composed of – constituted by – the links which connect the objects to each other through people.

On the other hand, this observation complicates another common concept of the Internet, one which I myself subscribed to unthinkingly until quite recently.

A dominant theme in Internet discourse is that it affords “many to many” communication. This idea has been expressed by many scholars whose work has influenced me. Clay Shirky uses many to many – or “group conversation” – dozens of times in his excellent Here Comes Everybody. He describes the fundamental feature of social software as allowing community to “now shade into audience; it’s as if your phone could turn into a radio station at the turn of a knob.” Before his book, Clay contributed, along with luminaries like danah boyd and David Weinberger, to a blog called “Many-to-Many.” Yochai Benkler wrote that the promise of the Internet would allow “the unmediated conversation of the many with the many.”

There’s even a Wikipedia page for many-to-many, which calls it “the third of three major Internet computing paradigms.” The entry differentiates it from “one-to-one” (like FTP and email) and “one-to-many” (like websites) communications as such:

With developments such as file sharing, blogs, Wiki, and tagging, a new set of Internet applications enable:

1) people to both contribute and receive information.

2) information elements can be interlinked across different websites.

This kind of Internet application shows the beginning of the “many-to-many” paradigm.

For a long time, I’ve taken for granted that what we commonly call social software does in fact afford many-to-many communication. Now I’m not so sure.

Part of the reason I’m confused is because there are conflicting definitions. A good example of this is email. Is email one-to-one or many-to-many? The IETF categorizes it as one-to-one, explaining that “we define one-to-one communications as those in which a person is communicating with another person as if face-to-face: a dialog.” Meanwhile, Clay Shirky celebrates email as one of the early successes of many-to-many communications because of how it facilitates “group conversations.”

But the main source of my confusion – and maybe the conflict above – is this: I’m not sure what many-to-many is supposed to mean.

What does it mean for many people to communicate to many people? How is it distinct from, say, many simultaneous one-to-one connections? How would it work?

Consider Twitter, a platform universally celebrated as many-to-many communication, at least by those who celebrate such things. Many individuals can send tweets to one person, to many people, or to no one (meaning everyone) in particular). But does that make it many-to-many?

Bob and I are both following Alice. When Alice tweets something out, we’ll both see it, and we can both respond to her, to each other, or to both. But what about that is that many-to-many? If I read Alice’s tweet and then send a reply to her, it’s still one-to-one. And even if I reply to both Alice and Bob, I’ve sent one message, but it really is copied and sent twice, one-to-one to two different people. And so on, and so forth, for whatever n people involved in the exchange.

So what is many-to-many supposed to mean? I think it has something to do with a sense of the public sphere. Benkler, Shirky, and many other Internet scholars have been heavily influenced by Habermas. The Internet has been described, by those who follow this tradition, as a sort of public square, or town hall, or coffee shop online, where groups of people can come together and engage in discussion.

Suppose if, instead of tweeting, Alice, Bob, Carol, David, and I are all seated at a cafe talking politics. This would appear to be, as Yochai might say, “the unmediated conversation of the many with the many.” But is it actually?

I don’t think so. Instead, if Alice is talking (she is apparently quite the chatterbox), she’s actually holding several, simultaneous one-to-one conversations. Bob, Carol, David and I are all listening, but we are all taking different things from it, based on our own understandings and interpretations, the references we get, our view of the world. This is true whether Alice is addressing an audience of ten or ten thousand (one-to-many dissolves as well here). And if we’re all talking to each other, the cacophony which arises is composed of several simultaneous one-to-one conversations.

Shifting back to the digital world, when I’m on Facebook, or Twitter, or tumblr, I can’t communicate “many-to-many” just because all of my friends are “there” too. Suppose Alice, now tired of talking, posts a photo to Facebook, and the rest of the crew comments, conversing with each other about it. I think most M2M folks would consider this a clear cut case, but it seems to me to be more accurately a series of simultaneous point-to-point connections overlaid in the same “space.” My comment on Alice’s photo is point-to-point to Alice and another point-to-point to Bob and another point-to-point to Carol.

My points here is not to belabor the hermeneutics of textual interpretation. On the Internet, the implications of everything being one-to-one are quite important and manifest in very real ways.

Suppose Facebook decided to invisibly intercede in my comment such that it appeared to Alice but not to Bob or Carol. This is, in fact, exactly what tumblr does when it “ghosts” troublesome users who have been repeatedly reported for spamming and harassment. Their posts remain viewable to their followers – but not to anyone else. Notice that these trolls aren’t banned from tumblr (that is, kicked out of the coffeehouse). Instead, some of the links which connect them to other users (in simultaneous, overlaid one-to-one ways) were invisibly severed. Some folks have dropped out of the many relative to some others of the many but not necessarily everyone. This doesn’t many any sense unless, instead of some big unmediated many, there is actually a constellation of individuals entangled in an enormous net – perhaps a world wide web – of connections.

What if many-to-many is an illusion? A construct supported by an analog ideal
but demonstrably inoperative and inoperable (for both intellectual and technical reasons) online?

It seems to me that such a realization would properly shift our emphasis away from objects (like photos and websites) and even social software (like Facebook or Wikipedia) and onto links: that is, the connections which constitute the network, arranging avenues of passage between people and through things. If everything is one-to-one, then building (or maintaining, or preserving) the routes which connect the points seems to me like an important – and previously underappreciated – priority.

This entry was originally posted to the blog of the Center for Civic Media.

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