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Meta-stable states

The final important property of thresholds comes from physics (Philip Ball) as well: meta-stability. Meta-stability is a state in which a system that is seemingly stable, is in reality very sensitive to being tipped over into another state. An example of such a system is a busy highway at which all cars move at full speed. Then if one car slows down to take an exit-lane, the cars behind it will brake, likely over-compensating, and a traffic-jam will result. The jam cannot be reversed until much fewer cars are on the road than in the initial stable state (tipping it in one direction is easier than in the other).

Meta-stable systems can be seen as low hanging fruit, as they can stay in their stable state for a long time, ready to be tipped. In terms of social traps they are most comparable to a missing hero type social trap, except that the hero doesn't have to sacrifice much. The existence of meta-stability, more even than bifurcation points, explains why timing and luck can be such important factors in the success of (hypertext) applications.

Of all the properties of thresholds we have discussed, diversity of motives, the shape of perceived network effects, and bifurcation points are normally the most important. The others are less central: knowledge of the production-function of an application is helpful for predicting how hard attaining critical mass will be for it, and metastability can make critical mass appear almost naturally, if one is lucky enough to encounter it.


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