That the structure of social networks is important to all species of social animals is a given. Also all social networks have rules which define the structure. Rule breakers threaten the status quo and are not usually encouraged and the effect of breaking the rules may result in the rule breaker complying with the majority. But if the number of rule breakers hits a particular threshold, what happens? Does the network change or does it disintegrate?

Hock and Fefferman of the State U of NJ have fired up their computer and carried out some simulations (1). Their virtual people were in groups of 50 and had to make friends. They could choose friends and then change two at each step in the simulation using one of two criteria. Their success in the group, i.e. becoming “popular,” was measured by their connectivity after 200 steps in the simulation.

The friend selection criteria, or The Rules, were either that the people were looking to be directly connected to the most popular individuals for one set of simulations, or that they were selecting friends who had the best connectivity for the other simulations, thereby becoming popular by having the most effective network.

Rule breakers ignored the criteria and dropped and befriended at random. The questions asked are firstly, how do the rule breakers affect their social (popularity) position? Secondly, how does the rule breaking effect the popularity structure of the network?

The answers are somewhat different depending on the type of network. If the network was based on everyone wanting a direct connection to the most popular, nothing much happened to anyone unless there was a large number of rule breakers and then the structure changed. So if the network relied on an alpha male that had to be worshipped, then the system would fall apart if enough network members said “To hell with that!”

For the networks where success depended on the best connectivity, breaking the rules by failing to try to connect with highly connected individuals didn’t hold those rule breakers back. By cutting across the normal routes, they could disrupt the success of others while improving their position if their numbers grew. But checks and balances (rewards/punishments) would be easier to build into the system to maintain the network structure.


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