Email, Scale-Free Networks, and the Mobile Internet

Howard Rheingold writes:

“E-mail was a great enabler of mobile Internet in Japan, and there is a fundamental mathematical reason for this,” claimed Ville Saarikoski, a Finn who lived in Japan when i-mode was launched and former head of mobile R&D for Sonera, in a recent e-mail interview. E-mail networks, he noted, have the unique structure of “scale-free” or “small world” networks, while the potential connectivity between nodes of SMS networks are far more highly constrained — it takes much longer, with many more hops, to travel across networks that do not have scale-free distribution. If he’s right, Saarikoski’s notion could be powerfully predictive as well as explanatory: future mobile Internet services that enable the formation of scale-free networks could be far more successful than services that don’t allow people to grow networks of that form.

“Think about Nokia’s slogan, ‘Connecting People,'” Saarikoski responded when I asked him about which properties of scale-free networks are important in mobile social media: “SMS connects people very inefficiently. Those who design future services would do well to search for more efficient ways of connecting people. Mobile e-mail not only connects people more efficiently, but its integration with the Web is key. A Web site creates a superconnected node, which drives networks toward scale-free properties, but information about the Web site has to spread in order for that to happen. I think the role of people-to-people messaging, the online/mobile equivalent of word-of-mouth, is huge in this regard. Look at Skype — no advertising budget, but it spreads like wildfire. Trust is important in connecting people with commerce online, and people trust their friends. Again, media like mobile e-mail connect people to their social networks, the source of trusted information, and to the Web, where transactions don’t flow without trust. Perhaps the most important property of scale-free networks when you are talking about telecommunications is the property that enables them to evolve: innovations in scale-free networks can spread incredibly fast through the entire network. ”

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.