Metcalfe’s Law and the Information Universe, Or: Why We Should be as Connected as Possible

I think it is important to keep in mind that the information universe beyond our repository is the ultimate audience and community for the material we steward. We don’t manage our repositories for their own sake, but because the materials in them have social or cultural value. Our job is to make it possible for people to use these materials that have been entrusted to us. Has this equation changed in the digital era?  Let’s think about it.  If in the paper world, preservation of the physical object had no real value unless the object could be used, can we say that preservation in the digital world has no real value if the digital content is not linked to other content? Is it true that only information that is linked will be discovered and used, and the more links the more use?  I’d like to make that statement and see if it holds up.
Some years ago, before the arrival of social networking,  Paul Conway wrote that “preservation is the creation of digital products worth maintaining over time.” Conway’s measure of worth at the time was the value added by the digitization process that could make the digital product more useful and critical to the collection and the institution that created it. That worth generally was internally contained within the object itself or tied to the application which it lived and was delivered. Today, I think the value proposition has shifted from an internal measure to an external one, and one that demands interoperability.   We can say that digital products worth maintaining over time are those that are the most connected to users and scholarship and have achieved a sort of transcendence over their original use or purpose through their connections with other objects or scholarship.  They have achieved what Bob Metcalfe called the network effect.

The Original Illustration of Metcalfe's Law

Metcalfe’s law (as explained by computer scientist Jim Hendler) was developed in the late 1980s and originally described in part the ” value of a network service to a user that arises from the number of people using the service.” While a network can grow “linearly with the number of connections, the value was proportional to the square of the number of users.”
A corollary to Metcalfe’s law was actually more relevant to the web in particular. While the number of connections to the network was important, it was the linking of content in that network that was the key to the value of a resource on the web. This corollary is most famously demonstrated by Google’s page ranking algorithm.
According to Bob Metcalfe, the originator of Metcalfe’s Law, the value of digital content to a particular community will exceed the cost of maintaining that content if there are enough links and communities built around that content to exceed a “critical mass.”  Since the cost of networks (and network storage), as well as the cost of connectivity is going down, while the potential uses (though linking) of digital content is ever increasing, the critical mass of links necessary to make a digital resource “valuable” is also decreasing.
To re-interpret Paul Conway’s aphorism, the worth of digital products is vested in how and how often they are linked to other resources and scholarship on the web. And preservation is not only the “preservation of access,” but what I would call the “preservation of connections” that are the heart of modern scholarship.

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