Wired: The Connectors

Issue 11.11 | November 2003
By Jeff Howe

In 1974, a Harvard sociologist made a seemingly unremarkable discovery. It is, in fact, who you know. His study asked several hundred white-collar workers how they’d landed their jobs. More than half credited a “personal connection.” Duh. But then it got interesting: The researcher, Mark Granovetter, dug deeper and discovered that four-fifths of these backdoor hires barely knew their benefactors. As it turns out, close friends are great for road trips, intimate dinners, and the occasional interest-free loan, but they suck for job leads and blind dates – they know the same people you do. In other words, it’s not so much who you know, but who you vaguely know. Granovetter called the phenomenon “the strength of weak ties.” He had discovered the human node.

In a computer network, a node performs the crucial task of data routing, playing digital matchmaker to packets of information. In a social network, a node is the person whose PDA runneth over with people they met once on an airplane. Nodes host countless dinner parties, leave movie theaters to answer cell phones, and actually enjoy attending conferences. It seems like they know everybody, because they very nearly do – and most important, their connections are from all walks of life, creating a panoply of weak ties. Mensches with an intellectual bent, nodes perform invaluable feats of synthesis, bringing together thinkers, scholars, captains of industry, and the odd professional rugby player, all for the sake of adding new spices to their melting pots. Great books, products, partnerships, and technological innovations form in their chaotic wake, and one could make an argument that they run the world, if only by accident. But chief among the node’s attributes is a tendency to stay behind the scenes, which raises an irresistible question: Who are these people, what do they do, and how do they do it? Wired combed our corner of the earth to pick the brains of prime specimens.

Matt Gunther
Matt Gunther

Clay Shirky: Consultant, writer, and adjunct professor at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Node Cred: Shirky, 39, is one of the handful of people with justifiable claim to the digerati moniker. He’s become a consistently prescient voice on networks, social software, and technology’s effects on society. He publishes everywhere from the Harvard Business Review to The Wall Street Journal, but his most influential essays (like last February’s “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality”) appear on Shirky.com.

Operating system: “I like to use email to broker introduction. There are three levels of email introduction: One is when you just provide a party with the other party’s info. The second is when you say, ‘Yeah, and use my name.’ The third is sending email to both, CC’ing them. You have to be careful about which level you use. If you do it right, it’s just enough of a spark to get people close.”

Node wisdom: “The most important person you know is someone you haven’t met. There was this urban myth rocketing around the Valley in the ’90s that 500 people – certain CEOs and venture capitalists – ran the world. Then Shawn Fanning came along.”

Matt Gunther
Matt Gunther

Ted Cohen: Senior VP for digital development at EMI and a liaison between the file-sharing and music communities.

Node Cred: In his nearly 40 years in the music biz, Cohen, 54, has collected 5,500 contacts. In 1982, Warner Bros. asked him to join a new media think tank, an idea ahead of its time. It included such luminaries as Xerox PARC legend Alan Kaye.

Crossover artist: Cohen became one of the only content guys with respect in the tech community, and, in 1999, he was engaged by both the RIAA and Napster to broker a compromise. He recently helped negotiate the licensing agreements that let iTunes launch.

Speed dial: RIAA prez Cary Sherman, Hilary Rosen, Rob Glaser, and Shawn Fanning.

Most important match: “Hooking up Sonique, Winamp’s competition, with Microsoft, who hooked them up with Lycos, who bought them for $30 million. I got a BMW as a thank-you.”

Secret weapon: Breakfast. “Everyone’s awake and less inclined to linger as people do over lunch. My standard line is ‘So-and-so meet so-and-so. Here’s why you should work together. Now pay me five bucks.'” He’s thrown an open-invite New Year’s brunch since 1974. “One year,” says Cohen, who does all the cooking himself, sometimes for 200 guests, “I tried to take a break, but 30 people showed up, so I wound up going down to a 7-Eleven, coming back, and making everyone breakfast.”

Matt Gunther
Matt Gunther

Seamus Blackley: Cocreator of the Xbox and its chief evangelist both inside and outside Microsoft. Blackley, 35, left last year to start a game development company, Capital Entertainment Group. He writes an influential column for UK gaming mag Develop.

Node Cred: When Bill Gates decided to enter the console gaming market, someone had to go out and persuade developers – most of whom considered Microsoft the Evil Empire – to write for the nascent platform. “I visited 80 percent of the developers on earth,” says Blackley, who became the public face of Xbox and, in the process, a crucial link between the gaming industry, Hollywood, and the music business.

Speed dial: Steven Spielberg.

Motivation: “It’s about achieving a state of coolness. I want to hook up people who instinctively go after stuff that makes them hop up and down with excitement. Money is just a lubricant; it unseizes machinery.” The people Blackley adds to his network, he says, “aren’t looking to score a point on the gross.”

Node Wisdom: Blackley says there are power laws, or tipping points, that operate in social networks. “Once you know enough people, suddenly you can’t stop. It’s like Pringles.”

Posted by Ted • Saturday, November 1, 2003 .