It’s alive, but not like Frankenstein’s monster

According to a study from HP Labs, Facebook pokes pulse like a heart: “the timing of messages … looks like the regular heartbeat of an organism, and given the enormous size of the network it was quite surprising.”

I’ve been thinking about this off and on since I read about it a couple of weeks ago. I guess it should be surprising, because I can’t think of any particular reason for social software activity to be reminiscent of a human heartbeat when graphed. But somehow this news doesn’t surprise me — the first thing I thought when I read “the regular heartbeat of an organism” was well, it is an organism, isn’t it?

And it is, in the “whole with interdependent parts, likened to a living being” sense, if not in the “individual animal” sense. (You gotta love the Oxford American Dictionaries widget.) Biologically there is no reason for a heartbeat, yet I still like the idea of facebook pokes looking like one. I like the idea of the pokes acting like a heartbeat in the facebook system even more, though I don’t know that they do.

I wonder which interactions are the “pulse” of other social sites. Would a flickr heartbeat be something found within groups, or individual photo streams? What might the LibraryThing zeitgeist look like if graphed over time? Would discovering that seemingly random actions fit a discernible pattern change anything for the folks hosting a community-oriented site?

I still had these questions floating around in my head when I started to see news stories and blog posts about the Center for the Digital Future’s survey finding that “43% of online networkers from the US felt ‘as strongly’ about their web community” as they do about physical world communities. The two things somehow connected themselves, if only in my brain. Where there’s a heartbeat there’s love, right?

I mean, of course these relationships are important. Emotional commitments and time investments matter more than proximity. The only truly shocking part of the survey results for me was the average time Americans spend online every week. (How long? 8.9 hours. I come closer to averaging that every day. You may point, mock, and call me names like “outlier” and “edge case” now.) Still, I think the point is that the web is the real world — social software just makes it more obvious.

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