Monday, March 20, 2006

Nerdy Diversion into Speculation

In my browsing today I came across this website on the way a simple power law describes how some websites become so very popular whereas the majority of others remain obscure. The funny thing is that where you have both a diversity of choices (i.e lots and lots of blogs) and complete freedom to choose then, counter-intuitively (for me at least), inequality inevitably emerges. What is going on is that there is feedback within this social system. So in the blogosphere, one's choice of which blogs to link to influences the choices of others. Even when the influence is tiny, inequality inevitably arises as the system grows. It is this power law that lies behind the famous 80/20 rule. Fascinating.

Of course it affects other social systems also, and this got me thinking about churches and how they function. Warning: These are not theological thoughts but sociological.

Though churches are not mentioned in the above article I often hear it said that 80% of the work of a church is done by 20% of the people. But a church is a social network like many other systems and so it is no surprise that something like 80/20 operates here where preferences are in operation.

It perhaps also explains the emergence of phenomenon I have heard of when a church experiences growth beyond a certain point. When a church is small and there are few choices of social interaction everyone is pretty happy. Everyone gets their fair share of interaction. However, as it grows individuals cannot interact with everyone and so they make choices. Inevitably this leads to inequality. Some people are found to be right at the centre of things (e.g. the leaders and other "movers & shakers") while others seem to be on the fringes. Inevitably, some of those on the fringes are those who were there when the church was small. Now, even though the church is larger they are experiencing less interaction, and certainly less than they would like having once felt at the centre. They begin to complain that "things are not the same as they used to be", or "I'm being left out". The trouble is nobody in the church need be consciously excluding others, and nothing about the excluded ones need have changed to warrant exclusion. It just happens because the church has reached a certain size and there is freedom to associate with whomever one likes.

As the article I linked to says, the inequality cannot be reversed without severe control imposed upon the social network. For example, in a large church one could remove choice from social networking and force people to 'network' such that there is no longer inequality. This would be unacceptable for a church, of course!

But another way is to restrict choice by splitting a church that has got too large into smaller churches. This way people can begin to feel included once again, and no doubt be more useful. Maybe this is one of the sociological reasons why the recent popularity of church planting rather than church growing seems to work so well and why everyone wants to plant a church!

But then, being well out of my field, I might be talking rubbish.

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