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Tapping into the party network

Alan Braunholtz

This morning, you’re either groaningly satisfied from last night’s brilliant party or grumpily condemning New Year’s Eve as a typical anti-climax and amateur night.

Party picking is the key to a good night and it’s no longer an art form. In years past, you went on a hunch based on reputation or word of mouth of who’d be there and your ability to gate crash.

Cell phones have made this guesswork a thing of the past. Now everyone is on the phone checking out where their friends are and sending photos to provide visible proof of “this place is going off” claims.



Sounds great! After an hour or so everyone knows which place to hit to hang with their friends, and all should have a good time. Maybe, but a recent phenomenon is the B-52s’ “Party out of Bounds” at one address, while down the road a bunch of Luddite cell phone-less losers chow down on leftover hors d’oeuvres while the host wonders where all the cool people have gone.

Friends call friends, who call other friends, and an explosive chain reaction descends on a house, usually followed by the police. This can happen incredibly quickly with a noticeable tipping point.



Social networks are strange things, and they can explain these tipping points. There is a science of network theory. Most of us have heard of “six degrees of separation” with its implications of how we’re all connected to everyone else through no more than six people.

This came from an experiment 40 years ago by a Stanley Milgram. He sent 300 letters at random to people in the U.S. asking them to forward these to a specific target person. The catch? They only knew the name, occupation, interests and hobbies of this target person, not the address. Milgram asked that they forward these letters to someone more likely to know the target’s address. A fifth of the letters arrived, and it only took about six repostings to do so.

Even in our clannish world of friends, we have a few long-range connections that link us to a friend of a friend and different networks. The ability to find the appropriate long-range connection, based in Milgram’s experiment on choosing acquaintances with similar interests to the target, is what turns a vast anonymous network into a small world where we always know a mutual acquaintance with the attractive stranger at a party.



The key is that person who links diverse networks to each other, the social hub who seems to have connections with everyone. Add in our cliquey nature and you get the exploding party effect. If we all liked everyone equally, then any party would be OK. We’d enjoy whoever was there. We don’t, though, and the more snooty we get, the more likely one party is going to go off while the others die. At a critical level of clannishness, only your friends will do. Thanks to the small-world effect, one party quickly ends up with everyone.

Network theory isn’t exactly new. The Inquisition worked it out in their battle against heresy and the heretics who challenged the unquestioned authority of the pope in the 12th century. Initially they killed everyone in a village suspected of sympathy with heretics. This did little but kill a lot of people.

After a while they realized the message of heresy always resurfaced and they needed to break up the network, not just stamp on infected computers.

The church formed heretic-hunting orders of Dominican and Franciscan friars ” the special services equivalent of the Catholic faith ” to destroy the heretic network. The Inquisition’s special forces focused not on individuals but on finding out (by torture) everyone who had visited them to spread the message.

They isolated penitent heretics with jail time. This heralded the start of jail as a punishment in itself, as opposed to a place to hold people before killing or punishing them. Milder punishments included marking anyone seen talking to a heretic with a yellow cross. Few would risk the wrath of the Inquisition by mixing with these individuals, effectively inoculating society from these potential carriers of diseased thought.

Social networks are scale-free. That is, you can’t produce an average or rough number of connections per person or clique. Similar to modern Web sites, you find that most connect to a few, but some (the Yahoos of people) connect to huge numbers of other people.

The friars realized this and although by the 13th century had almost stamped heresy out, they couldn’t relax. Only a few of these well-connected people could re-infect the whole empire.

One of these, William of Milan, was caught in Slovenia by a special task force of Franciscan friars operating strangely similarly to the CIA and their process of extraordinary “renditions” with terrorist suspects. Shouldn’t be that surprising, since both were trying to disable scale-free networks. The Dominican friar Bernard Gui wrote the first book on it.

What’s this got to do with parties? Not much, except as a conversational starter while you wait for the call to see if it’s worth staying. If you’re a host, maybe trying to temporarily disable the network by taking the cell phones with the coats, at least those of the influential few, or by buying a blocker.

And always expect an Inquisition!

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

Vail, Colorado


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