Applying End-to-End Design Principles in Social Networks

 Andy Lippman, at MIT’s Media Lab, offers provocative examples of learning how to think in network terms when designing services in a recent blog post from the Communications Futures Program at MIT. At the very heart of the Internet’s design is a notion called the end-to-end principle (pdf). The best network is one that treats all nodes in the network identically and pushes responsibility for decisions out to the nodes. Creating special nodes in the network and centralizing decisions in those nodes makes the network as a whole work less well.

In this essay, Lippman explores that notion by looking at examples of existing and potential services in telecommunications networks that could be improved by trusting the end-to-end principle more fully. Lippman takes a look at emergency services such as 911 calls in the US. As currently designed, these services allow individuals to reach a centralized dispatch center in the event of an emergency.

Emergencies are no longer solely about getting help for a fire or heart attack. Nor are they purely personal affairs, directed at or for a single individual. Consider the recent attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airplane where passengers provided the service (saving the plane). Early reports portrayed this as a fine solution. Indeed, there is discussion that the best result of increased airline security is that it has made people aware of the fact that they all have to pitch in to help when it is needed; they can no longer just rely on a remote entity a site to solve the problem for them.

End-to-End Social Networks
Andy Lippman
Fri, 01 Jan 2010 21:10:36 GMT

Lippman makes the point that we can benefit from thinking about ways to mobilize the network as a whole as an alternative to using it to direct messages to some centralized authority. Continuing to impose hierarchical notions on top of network designs risks missing other, potentially more powerful, options. We have a set of powerful new tools and ideas that we have yet to fully exploit.

The design reasoning that underlies the engineering of the Internet is applicable in organizational settings as well. Lippman’s examples are a good place to start in thinking how to apply them effectively.

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