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Fast & Competitive Social Networking


Two years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency created a competition to test “social networking’s potential to solve widely distributed, time-sensitive problems.”  To do this, they set up 10 red weather balloons around the United States, and offered over 4,000 teams $40,000 to be the first to locate the GPS coordinates of all ten balloons.  A team from MIT was able to complete this task in less than nine hours!  The winning strategy was similar to other team’s strategies in that it used a wide variety of social networks on the internet like Facebook, Twitter, and college alumni list-serves.   What separated the MIT team from the field, however, was an incentive approach in which they offered $2,000 to the person who located any of the ten balloons, $1,000 to the person who invited the person who found the balloon and half the previous amount for each consecutive person in the chain connected to the person who found the balloon.  Therefore, if you invited someone, who invited someone, who invited someone, who invited someone that found the balloon, you would get $125.  Contrary to the marketing campaigns of many companies that only give you a discount if you invite someone who signs up for the company’s product (e.g. a magazine subscription), the MIT team’s plan gave people incentive to invite everyone, even if they weren’t the ones to find a balloon.

Social networking has been a primary topic in our class.   We discussed how networks can increase in size by connecting components with local bridges, and how weak connections between nodes tend to increase network size more easily then strong connections do.  In the aforementioned competition, the MIT team gave people incentive to increase the size of the network.  People who created local bridges between components in this competition (i.e. connected a component previously unfamiliar with the competition) were more likely to get paid because they were a source of many people learning about the competition.  Likewise, people with many weak connections who could invite a lot of people to the competition were more likely to get paid than the people with strong connections and triadic closure, who couldn’t branch out to many other people.

Many situations involve communicating to mass amounts of people in short amounts of time like informing a community of a lost child, or finding power generators after a tornado.  Continuing to develop theories on how to quickly develop social networks could aid the world in spreading valuable messages at fast speeds.


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