A burst for Bursts

Photo via Thinkstock.
Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

The other day I starred the following headline in my RSS feed: “Any Two Pages on the Web Are Connected By 19 Clicks or Less.” I didn’t read it immediately because it sounded like vaguely familiar old news that I could probably return to later.

But this morning in our office’s daily editorial meeting, I kicked myself because it turned out that article was about the work of one of Northeastern’s very own guys, Albert-László Barabási. It’s my job to know what’s going on with our researchers and I was miffed that I let this one slip by me. I immediately pulled out my phone and stealthily read the first few lines of the news story, which appeared on the Smithsonian’s blog Surprising Science:

No one knows for sure how many individual pages are on the web, but right now, it’s estimated that there are more than 14 billion. Recently, though, Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási discovered something surprising about this massive number: 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.

But wait, hadn’t I heard that….before? Wasn’t this old news? By now I was having some serious déjà vu. So I went back to my office and downloaded the article that published on February 18th, 2013 with this so-called new discovery.

“Network Science” appeared in a special issues of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A on Monday, but it’s not so much a research article as a summary of a talk that Barabasi delivered back in 2010 at a workshop on the new science of the Internet. In the talk he presented what he believes are the four guiding principles of the Internet:

  1. It’s held together by a few highly connected hubs, rather than a random assortment of equally strong nodes (or websites).
  2. It’s a “small world,” meaning each site can be reached via a finite number of links from any other site (this is the “19 clicks or less” phenomenon).
  3. It expands through the addition of new documents, which are more likely to link to highly connected documents than otherwise.
  4. It grows in a systematic way, with more linkable nodes winning out over less well-connected ones.

All of these stemmed from previous work that Barabasi’s lab had published over the last fifteen years. The talk, and subsequent paper, were merely a recap. The 19 clicks result, which gained some steam after the Smithsonian article went live (ABC News, Slate and Mashable all picked it up), was actually published in Nature Magazine in 1999. Not Philosophical Transactions. And not on Monday.

So, why on earth am I even blogging about this? I’m not the Science Journalism Tracker and people are right to think that Barabasi’s research is cool, so why would I call attention to their being 14 years late to the party?

Because the very fact that the story has gained traction again is itself a representation of the work the story is describing! It’s so delightfully meta, I’m still getting goosebumps.

I was immediately reminded of a story that another network scientist, Hamid Benbrahim, told me a few months ago: In September 2001, United Airlines filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Chicago Tribune wrote a story about it and seven years later that story appeared on the Miami Sun Sentinel’s homepage without a date for unknown reasons. That same week, Hurricane Ike was on track to strike the Florida coast. Possibly because people were searching for info about their flights to Florida, the Sentinel story started getting thousands of hits.

On Monday, September 8th, 2008, a journalist working for Bloomberg News searched for news on recent bankruptcies. The undated Sentinel story appeared in his results. Not really thinking about the current state of the airline industry, which was fine, he grabbed the headline and posted it to Bloomberg’s homepage. Eight minutes later, United Airline’s stock plummeted.

If Barabasi’s 1999 Nature article could have somehow impacted the stock of some random airline, the Smithsonian story could have caused some serious, undue damage just like the Sentinel’s did in 2008. Luckily, all it did was give Barabasi a little burst of well-deserved attention.

And, hey, here’s a funny connection: “Bursts” is the title of his 2010 book whose subtitle reads “The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do.” In it he describes how humans are a “bursty” species. We eat in bursts, usually around the beginning, middle and end of the daylight hours. We check our emails in bursts, rather than every five minutes across the day’s 24 hours (well, most of do). We cook, sleep, make phone calls, and surf the web in bursts. As a result, artifacts of humanity are bursty as well. The articles we read go through little bursts of popularity, getting a whole bunch of readers on the first day of publication and then subsequent bursts at seemingly random points throughout their eventual history.

Barabasi and his team looked at bursts on a Hungarian news portal called Origo.hu. In Bursts, he writes the following:

…two researchers in my group at the University of Notre dame—graduate student Zoltan Dezso and postdoctoral associate Eivind Almaas—set out to answer this simple question: how long is any particular news item accessed at a given time at Origo.hu? In other words, how long is each story’s fifteen minutes off fame really? To answer the question, they first determined the number of people who clicked on a particular article each hour. Not surprisingly, about 28 percent of traffic occurred during the initial twenty-four hours after an article was published online. On the second day, there was a dramatic drop-off in readership, accounting for a mere 7 percent of the article’s total hits.

This makes sense, of course: if a piece of news interests you, you tend to read it as soon as you come across it while trawling your favorite sites. And by the third or fourth day everybody who had any interest in the piece had a chance to look at it, thus the visitors should have ceased arriving. The problem was that they did not. Instead most articles on the portal continued to be read many times over, many days after their initial publication.

This was somewhat mysterious. First of all, how did people even come across these articles, many of which had disappeared from the front page days prior? Second, why on earth would anybody be interested in old news?

Yes, indeed. Why on earth would anybody be interested in old news? For the details of Barabasi’s answer, you’ll have to read the book (shameless pitch, but it’s worth it, I promise!). In the mean time, I’ll leave you with this thought: Isn’t it cool that every website on the web is connected to every other through just 19 clicks? Did you know that before today? Here’s an article where you can read all about it (it was published in 1999).