Literature review

Howard Rheingold was one of the first people who articulated the promise of the social web. With “Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” he literally wrote the book on online community. Rheingold is an unapologetic enthusiast for the potential of digital community and the network society but he is also thoughtful and balanced in his examination of how we are now using social media. In the same way as ‘Homesteading’ connected with my inital bedazzlement with the potential of virtual community his 2012 book Net Smart connects with my growing sense of the fragility of many of the cultural aspects of the social web which showed so much potential for social change. Net Smart is for me an eloqent discussion of how we all could take responsibilty for making sure that the social web adds to social value. This post is a note for my literature review and I hope an introduction to the concepts he is discussing in the book – but you if you are a regular read here then I suggest you read the book yourself as its both excellent and approachable.

Rheingold’s emphasis is on how to be ‘mindful’ in the way we use social media – ‘net smarts’ is his shorthand for the skills needed to make the best out of these tools. While still positive in tone this book lays out very clearly the fact that the participatory culture which Rhiengold identified in his earlier work is still evolving and that if we wish to ensure that it delivers the social value that many early adopters were energised by we will need to consciously enact these outcomes. He is not unaware that corporate influence and old elites and behaviours are now working actively or passively to reduce the transformative potential of participatory culture and states for example that “The time to control dataveillance through policy means has passed” (p.239). He concludes with this request:

“We are only beginning to see what networked publics can do for good and evil. I have chosen to try and provide resources to increase the amount of good that networked publics can do. I don’t claim that this is sufficient solution to the problem of proliferating literacies and publics. I have been accused of being an optimist, which I am not. I am aware that the deck is always stacked by those who have the most stake if they can manage a way to do it. Nevertheless, I choose to be hopeful. We are all decended rom predecessors who, while their companions might become realistically resigned to the hopelessness of their situation, couldn’t help thinking, “there must be a way out of this”. The future is not guaranteed. There is no influence without knowledge and effort. I’ve tried to provide tools for you to gain that knowledge. Its up to you to make the effort.” (p.253)

The first chapter talks about attention and the need to relearn the ability to concentrate and control your interaction with an information overloaded environment. Mindfulness, the ability to be ‘in’ the moment of totally focused on what you are doing, is just the first way in which Rhiengold proposes a more visceral analysis of our online experience than is suggested by an information consumption model. As I sit here with 3 devices and 2 open books I am trying to relearn mindfulness.

Crap detection
The next section deals with information management and provides an analysis of the skills which many experienced social media users develop instinctively (though these can always be challenged as was seen by Greenpeace’s brilliant anti-Shell Campaign Arctic Ready). Descriptions of source triagulation for news stories (p.80) demonstrate the active curation skills you need to make use of a tool like twitter and his later analysis of the search engine business points out the balancing of public good with commercial or politcal interest (p.85). He also touches on the social nature of authority and gatekeeping which many yet challenge the preeminance of the search engine as a way of finding news. Rheingold wants to see us developing skills of crap detection and infotention – managing multiple and parallel dynamic information flows – as an underpinning to the act of mindful participation.

Chapter 3 discusses participation because “In the world of networked publics, online participation – if you know how to do it – can translate into real power” (P.112). The critical element that Rheingold emphasises is the need to have participants who read, comment and share the content that is created. On the one hand this states the obvious on the other it points out one of the obvious shortcomings that most people have in terms of generosity and reciprocity of participation. He uses the term participatory culture as described by Henry Jenkins as compromising of:

1. relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement
2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others
3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices
4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least, they care what other people think of what they have created) (P.113)

Rheingold expands on this by connecting it with his work on online community and mindfulness; “you exercise mindfulness when you ask yourself whether you are enriching someone or stealing part of their attention when you share a video of a revolution or a cute kitten” (P.126). This chapter discusses the role of the curator and describes it thus: “The curator role used to be reserved for the people who ran museums, but the term has been revived and expanded to describe the way populations of web participatns acn act as information finders and evaluators for each other, cresting through their choices collections of links that others can use” (P.127). He goes on to describe curation as “a form of participation that is open to anyone who might not want to blog, tweet, or update a Facebook profile but instead are happy to bookmark, tag, or like other people’s digital creations” (P.127). Where the old model of limited means of production put huge emphasis on the content creators the new model of unlimited content production creates new roles and prominance for the content curators as well as the creators.

There is also a whole section on my personal favourite curation tool – tagging – “Tagging isn’t just a way to participate. It’s the fundamental building block of a whole new way of aggregatng and organzing knowledge” (P.133). He emphasising the power shift inherent in participant organised content when compared by content organised into the ontologies of often narrowly focused elites.

There is also a apposite quote from Danah Boyd on the issue of personal curation of identity; “My way of coping with persistence is to create a living presence, frame my own story in an ongoing way, and creating a digital self that is constantly evolving not to escape but to mature” (P.138)

The latter chapters discuss collaboration and the potential for action that is within the participatory culture described. He focuses on examples of online collaboration such as Beth Novecks design for the crowdsourcing of patent processing and if I were to critcise the book it is in not making the next step to connect online behaviors to offline outcomes.

That being said, the intellectual architecture for this is explored in the form of a discussion of social dilemnas – where the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the many – can be resolved through collaboration. Rheingold references Elinor Ostrom’s work which examines how “institutues of collective action” come together to overcome the ‘tradgey of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968). Ostrom was one of the architects of the concept of co-production in community development and so this is an important link between the two literatures.

Rheingold describes collaboration as being the most purposeful form of collective action (p.154) but also describes how networking, coordination and co-operation all support and ‘lubricate’ the process of collaboration. From this he goes on to discuss Jane McGonigal’s work on gaming and her belief that gamers are becoming ‘supercollaborators’. This is the point of connection between Ostroms work on co-production and the idea that ‘gamification’ of collective action can start to provide pro-social action. Collective intelligence, as introduced by Levy in 1999, indicates the potential of networks to consciously solve problems which will defeat individuals or hierarchies and in a more deliberate way than the ‘wisdom of crowds’ model which is largely undirected.

There is a huge amount of wisdom in this book for anyone interested in the practical skills needed to be effective on the social web. For example the section (P.213-215) outlining Rainie and Wellman’s description of the characteristics of the successful participatory actor includes this;

Those who can function effectively in different contexts and ‘collapsed contexts’: The act of joining and belonging to multiple groups requires a development group understanding or knowledge as each has different histories, norms and folklore. People must learn the ropes in these different milieus. The more gracefully thet can do this, the quicker they can assume greater roles within multiple communities and networks”

Rheingold later talks about the emotional connection between actors as being the differntiator and refers back to his 1998 essay on “The art of Hosting Good Conversations online” which is still spot on with respect to techniques for community building. “Knowing the difference between a community and a nework is as critical socially as crap detecion is essenital informationally” (p.163). He explores a social capital analysis of online community and makes connections with social network analysis and the emphasis on weak ties / bridging capital (p.215) which is a useful link for community managers and starts to make the connection to offline behaviours. This section also returns us to the need for reciprocity in this environment and provides the practical advice to anyone looking to increase their influence to “be a bridge” (p.222).

Anyone interested in learning platforms or knowledge mabagement should read the section on Personal Learning Networks (P.225) which describes self-directed learning in an online context. He also discusses learning and the skills we should be teaching children in the context of “net smart’. The whole section made me ask how we can teach being net smart to politicans – something to ponder on I think.

This book codifies many of the instinctive conclusions of the experienced social web participant. It describes the need for ongoing curation and information management and the way in which your sense of self is actively created. Rheingold describes the new roles developing for curation and the essential act of appreciation and sharing within the participatory environment – he moves the discussion past the content creators to look at the whole ecosystem. He also highlights the fact that ‘social good’ or democratic outcomes are not inherent in a participatory culture – it is exactly what we make of it.

It’s both exhausting and exilerating to contemplate the world of persistant participation that Rheingold describes and this is perhaps why he emphasises the need for mindfulness and also the need for human connections throughout the book. Where Sherry Turkles later work, Alone Together, seems to talk of being overwhelmed by technology Rheingold is trying to describe the tools we need to ensure we retain a directed experience of the social web. Tremendous energy is needed to exert that directional control but there there are huge potential social benefits from doing so. This is perhaps the final thought I took away from reading this book – if we are to get the best out of networked technologies in terms of social impacts that we cannot think that to do so is the easy option. We have perhaps been seduced by the ease of production into thinking that outcomes are as easy to create – as with any other medium making a difference is hard and we have to decide whether we choose to make the effort.

Rheingold provides the answer to why we should bother to do so:

“Pay attention to opportunities you might have to improve the public sphere. It’s not up to anyone else. Apply crap detection when you encounter political assertions, including those you agree with, especially online. Learn to participate in political discussions online and strive to raise the level of debate in the social media public sphere. Contest positions, don’t attack people; cite evidence and be willing to change your mind. Collaborate with others to advocate, persuade, and organize; join informed collective action. If you aren’t an actor in a democracy then you are acted on. Know how networks of power and counterpower work, and seek to understand your place in them. The public sphere is a theory about what is, at its base, a simple question: Am I going to act as if citizens acting in concert can wield any power to influence policy? Or am I going to leave my liberty to others?” (P.242)

Speaking personally – I do not intend to leave my liberty to others – but I think that before we can envisage this kind of participatory networked public sphere we perhaps need to make sure that the old elites that are currently in power are listening.

Net smart is a brilliant exploration of the social web – but it highlights the vulnerabilities of the participatory culture as it grows and develops. Perhaps the final point to take away is that that those of us who value the culture of the social web as it is now need to ensure that new participants learn this net smart skills in order to avoid overwhelming the environment with entrenched offline behaviours.


This weekend you’ll be pleased to know I have been reading the recently released update of the OXIS survey (which you can get hold of here – but large thanks to Tim Davies for posting me a copy!).  I have also been updating my Facts Glorious Facts page if you like that kind of thing so this post is really just a few highlights and observations from the report.

For those of you who haven’t come across it the Oxford Internet Survey is the UK answer to the Pew report and consists of a questionnaire sent to a weighted sample of 2057 people on the UK (response rate is just less that 50% which isn’t bad).  Its not huge but its an excellent summary of where we are as a country with respect to internet usage and as this is now the 5th year (its been running avery other year since 2003) it is now a good source of longitudinal data about internet habits.

The headline number of people that are online according to OXIS is around 73% of the population with household and individual access being almost the same.  Reasons for not going online are interesting however:

And reasons to stop using the internet are also revealing:

Next Generation – how star trek

One of the main findings of the report is the emergence of what the authors (William Dutton and Grant Blank) call next generation internet users.  They define these as

someone who accesses the internet from multiple locations and devices.  Specifically, we operationally define the next generation user as someone who uses at least two internet applications (out of four applications queried) on their mobile or who fits two or more of the following criteria:  they own a tablet, own a reader, own three or more computers.  By this definition 44.4% of internet users in Britain were next generation users

The interesting thing is that these are not just “The Young People” (have started capitalising this since turning 40) – there is a stronger correlation with income and employment – though students are a large part of this new group.  Given the fact that reasons for not using the internet are closely linked to the costs as well as the access to technology that is driving this next generation use then I for one will be watching very carefully to see whether or not increased market penetration of smart phones and cheaper tablets starts to change this picture.

Yet more content….

According to the report content creation online is a generally increasing activity with around 25% of internet users creating something (higher that the OFCOM estimates).  The graph below shows these increases:

But the next generation users are more likely to be doing this:

Overall the use of social networking sites has moved from a minority position in 2009 to a majority activity (60%) in 2011.  Importantly schooling is not important to the use of these sites – but as we saw earlier income is.

Government – meh

Overall the levels of participation with government and democracy indicated by the report are small – and though the next generation of users are more active this is as likely to correlate with the fact that they tend towards a higher income than specifically being linked to their next generation use – if indeed you can separate this at all.

Political efficacy is shown to be positively associated with internet use but there has been no significant increase in online political participation evidenced by the research desipte the 2010 election having been held since the last survey in 2009.

Civic participation is also not huge (NB they use a difference definition of civic to the one I use and are talking about participation in non-political associations rather than the wider desire to connect to your community with or without formal organisations).

Given the levels of disatisfaction with the political process and the results from for example the Hansard Audit these findings should not suprise us – though they should be of some concern.  It would be interesting to see what the results would be if the questions explored membership of online campaigning movements such as Avaaz or other online campaigns such as ‘Hugh’s Fish Fight” – are we really these low levels of participation or are we seeing them specifically with respect to the formal political process?

Internet use is settling down to be very very important

The report is detailed and I recommend having a read.  The entry point of the nature of your access as a way of codifying your relationship with the internet is a useful one and the next generation internet category is a good way of exploring the differences in internet use that we see.  I would like to see more exploration of which came first – the behaviours or the devices but we probably have to accept that they drive each other.

The nature of the digital divide is clearly changing and with respect to my work I think we need to be even more conscious than ever that the people we see creating content and demonstrating their political efficacy are a fairly specific group.

The good news is that if you can give people access then indications are that there are few barriers to them participating – but the question is whether or not enough people will get smart phones for Christmas in order to start changing this picture.

Overall the picture from the research is of internet use becoming more and more embedded – there is a lot of detail on this but I was struck particularly by this graph showing the effect on other media:

I am reading the brilliant “Amusing ourselves to death” at the moment and I must say that we have to ask whether or not the passive entertainment that the television has provided us is going to be a bit of a blip with respect to how we chose to spend our leisure time – ask me again in 2050.

Within this section there is some important stuff about levels of trust in different media and organizations (sorry government – last again here with trust levels being between 2.5-2.3 out of 5).

And one of the other interesting details was the fact that the desire to regulate the internet has reduced since 2009:

And that has to be good news as far as I concerned and probably a good place to close…

Addendum 24th October

This is a more in the way of a note to self hence the late addition.  Throughout this report the authors have spoken about respondents ‘using social networking sites’ – but the fact is that according to the OFCOM data this really means using Facebook for the vast majority of people.  It may not be the case for the content creators who make wider use of social media services (we have found it around 50:50 with the social media audits) but we need to be careful I think about whether or not we are seeing one successful service – Facebook – as opposed to a general trend.  My personal view is that we are seeing a general trend and that the next generation users are embedding the social web in their lives in lots of different ways but the overall growth may be less that these stats show as Facebook take up is masking other kinds of behaviours.

Mmmm….not sure….one to think about…

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks

This is brief write up of the Robin Dunbar book “How many friends does one person need?”.  I read the book as a balance to the way in which its very easy to start thinking of networks mathematically and systemically even though its incredibly important to remember the fact that social networks are made up of people and as a result will behave in messy, emotional and human ways.  Its also an important contrast for me with the enormous rationalist thinking of the age of enlightenment approach of Habermas’ Public Sphere for example.

Its very easy to ignore the ‘social’ bit of ‘social networks’ – when you are working online there is a pull towards a technological / engineering mindset which is difficult to resist as you build your environment.  Online space is created both by code and by the narratives and content that use that code – but the fact is that the code comes first and that often results in an environment that ultimately wants to resolve to a whole series of zeros and ones.  One of the exciting things for me in terms of technology development over the last few years is the way in which User Experience and user centred design has grown as a field – acknowledging the fact that we don’t all need to earn our ‘right’ to be online by hand coding at the command line.

Dunbar’s work looks at how groups work, not as networks or learning sets but as biological and social imperatives.  His research discusses the evidence base that shows our social behaviour is innate and our forming of a groups a necessary part of our humanity.  He is a longstanding science journalist as well as a researcher and he is best know for coining the term the ‘Dunbar number’ which he defines as:

“….as the set of people who, if you saw them in the transit lounge during a 3 a.m. stopover at Hong Kong airport, you wouldn’t feel embarrassed about going up to them and saying: `Hi! How are you? Haven’t seen you in ages!’ In fact, they would probably be a bit miffed if you didn’t. You wouldn’t need to introduce yourself because they would know where you stood in their social world, and you would know where they stood in yours. And, if push really came to shove, they would be more likely than not to agree to lend you a fiver if you asked.”

He’s describing the number of people you can trust and have an emotional affinity to – and the number got considerable press as at the time it was very close to the average number of ‘friends’ each person had on Facebook.

I just want to pause at this point and be clear that we are really talking about two different definitions of ‘friend’ here.  Dunbar is using the term to refer to people who we have an emotional attachment to which meets certain criteria.  In the context of Facebook ‘friend’ is used far more loosely – would you lend £5 to everyone who you are friends with on Facebook?

Dunbar talks about the ‘Dunbar number’ as being an evolutionary limit – basically our brains can’t handle more connections than this.  There are also similarities with clan group sizes in tribal cultures – groups of this size as being discernible within overall clan sizes of between 500 and 1500 people.

This is not to say that he thinking all social grouping larger than that are doomed – but at that point we need different social structures in order to provide the sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity that communities need in order to function – it can’t just be done on the basis of that emotional bond.

Dunbar also describes patterns in these larger social grouping which work on broadly a factor of three.  This builds up from what social psychologists call a ‘sympathy group’ of 12-15 people whose death would leave you distraught , to groupings of 50 which are found in aboriginal society, through to a group size of 1500.  Interestingly Plato went one further than that when he suggested 5300 as the ideal size for a democracy.

He also talks about the need for physical contact – the chimps grooming each of other – and the fact that language provides another kind of social grooming with gossip having a role in providing the glue that keeps communities together – passing information about each other indicates you are part of the same group.

One of his overarching points is the fact that our brains evolve a lot more slowly than the pace of technological and social development – the aphorism of ‘stone age brains in a space age universe’ – and that we need to remember this when we consider our reactions to change around us and take into account the fact that our first reaction may be an emotional rather than a rational one.

This is a challenge to the thinking of sociologists like Habermas who approach the question of society and democracy with an age of enlightenment rationality which often fails to take into account that human reactions are often irrational and based on our feelings of belonging rather than an idealised view of how we want the world to me.  Successful orators tap into this emotional response and any effective communicator is appealing to you emotionally as well as rationally.  What’s more Dunbar explains that judgements about morality and practical utilitarian decisions are not located in the same part of the brain and are not necessarily called on at the same time – Hume was right when he talked about the idea that morality is born of our emotional response and not our rationality – we are not always thinking when we act.

So what is it that forms that social glue that turns friendship groups of 150 into communities of 5000?  Dunbar talks about gossip and conversational grooming.  He also points out the role of religion in creating this common framework.   Laughter and music also generate the endorphins that we need to ‘bond’ with other people.  What is clear is that he is suggesting shared activities and opportunities to connect to people beyond your immediate circle of friends.

Relating this back to civic space and hyperlocal communities – it would be interesting to look at the numbers of participants to see how they relate to Dunbar’s groupings and it would also be interesting to look at how these numbers relate to the types of tools and interactions that work well with different numbers in the groups.  There is also little work as yet as to whether or not the Dunbar number and the tribal based group behaviour patterns translate in any way to online interactions.

Dunbar (and evolutionary biologists) provides a useful balance to the far more rational approach taken by many of the authors looking at the network society and provide an important reminder that the our emotional needs are as important – or more important – than our intellectual needs.  As we contemplate our to re-connect people to their local communities – either online or offline – its important that we remember this perspective and design for hearts as well as heads.

This post is a bit of a hodgepodge of follow up from stuff I was working on last week – we’ll see if it weaves itself into one piece by the end.

First up is a follow up on the social network analysis. Ethnobot was good enough to point me at the work of Damon Centola  and his content on weak ties. Centola talks about weak ties in more detail and looks at how they work in order to pass ideas and information. As with the Granovetter work the conclusion continues to be that weak ties are the most effective for passing information but Centola goes further to talk about the ways in which weak ties can effect what he calls complex contagion. Simple and complex contagion is a metaphor taken from epidemiology and refers to the source of infection. In social network terms do you need to hear an idea once or do you need to hear it multiple times in order to act upon it? If its the latter then its a complex contagion and this is much more common if you are talking about behaviour change but still, according to Centola, track and traceable.

There are a number of different terms being used for the connection points between networks and sub-networks. Castells, for example, talks about ‘Switches’ but Centola calls them ‘Bridges’ which I think its nicely illustrative. Complex contagion requires either wide or multiple bridges so that people are presented with an idea or behaviour in different ways or from different people. Contrast with the simple contagion model of Malcolm Gladwell who’s Connectors apparently fulfil this role entirely on their own – something which is challenged by Centola’s work.

[as a complete aside you may want to read Bellweather by Connie Willis – its fiction – and takes a rather more amusing view as to how trends are set – with a solid bit of theory lurking within it.]

Earlier in my PHD I got very seduced by social capital and Robert Putnam’s work in ‘Bowling Alone’. One of the interesting aspects of working within a multidisciplinary research centre (I’m studying at SPRU at the University of Sussex) is that you are able to roam between fields to some extent. Social capital looks at the same effect as the social network analysis from the point of view of an economist as opposed to a sociologist. I’m not sure where those urban geographers (Wellman, Massey and others) come into it but this is crossover territory for people who accept that there is no point at looking at the built environment without considering the people who live within it – and I think perhaps we need to find a new category for researchers who are looking at the online world through the filter of the lives that people live within it. Ultimately I decided that, for me, the social capital analysis is too passive and looks at measuring an asset which is to a great extent unmeasurable until its tested – and if its unmeasurable then you can’t really organise around it. Social networks are measurable to a far greater degree and we are not putting any value on that measurement – we are just noting and describing the connections rather that the inherent value they may have. It does however make it important that we are able to describe these relationships in some detail.

This is not so say that a social network has a flat topography – links between nodes have different directions and strength. This question of strong and weak ties and the effects of them on information and behaviour change is about power manifests through networks – and who can wield it.

And this brings me to the other bit of follow up I was doing last week in reading a few articles from the International Journal of Communication’s recent supplement on multidimensional networks – which is worth a read. Yochai Benkler – who is someone I should have added to my piece on network society thinkers – one of his research interests is the “Effects of the networked public sphere on democracy” and his recent article”Networks of Power, Degrees of Freedom” explores manifestations of power, counter power and freedom. He looks at the way that networks and individuals exert power and uses the example of wikileaks to show how the network society has subverted traditional power structures. This is a fairly standard observation from a network society thinker but as a lawyer Benkler has an in-depth analysis of the wikileaks narrative which is worth reading.

Counter power is in fact a Castells concept that refers to the activity of resisting the imposition of power onto and indivudal – as distinct from freedom that allows you to exert your own power. Castells contribution to the IJoC supplement is a discussion of the four types of power of the network society:

  1. Networking Power: the power of the actors and organizations included in the networks that constitute the core of the global network society over human collectives and individuals who are not included in these global networks.
  2. Network Power: the power resulting from the standards required to coordinate social interaction in the networks. In this case, power is exercised not by exclusion from the networks but by the imposition of the rules of inclusion.
  3. Networked Power: the power of social actors over other social actors in the network. The forms and processes of networked power are specific to each network.
  4. Network-making Power: the power to program specific networks according to the interests and values of the programmers, and the power to switch different networks following the strategic alliances between the dominant actors of various networks.

Within the article he develops the idea of programmers – who are able to form and direct networks – and switchers who are able to connect different networks together.

Now, this is the point where the network society theorists start to trip over the social network analysis folks.

Centola’ multiple sources of complex contagion and his strong bridges are not compatible with Castells construct of the switcher (or indeed Gladwell’s connectors) – the data seems to indicate that more than one person needs to be involved if we are talking about behaviour change. Castells (and I think Benkler though more reading needed on this) do address this issue but instead of talking about multiple people refer to multidimensional relationships – power needs a variety of relationships to manifest.

There is an issue here with data vs theory and another reason why you need to be cautious with social network analysis. Though it might appear that we can connect the Centola result that indicates the need for multiple relationships to create complex contagion and that we can say that the manifestation of power is an active instance of complex contagion we are not going to be able to create the data set that would prove or disprove this theory. The multidimensional nature of the networks that Castells and Benkler are talking about are not measurable except by heroic data collection efforts as they rely on actors being able to categorise this connections where Centola just needs us to admit to a connection. We are therefore left with the slightly unsatisfactory feeling that Centola (and others) have given is a measurable theory that speaks to the complexity of behaviour change while Castells (and others) has given is a compelling explanation as to how power works through networks.

The question I ask myself then is whether or not it would be possible to look at this question at the local or hyperlocal level? Can we document the nature of the relationships of the core civic creators in an area in such detail that we are then able to track behaviour change through that network, and its connected networks? And can we then examine how this civic network connects to the democratic one in order to see whether it is the elected representatives that form the necessary bridges or are those bridges formed (or not formed) elsewhere?

I think so. Detailed SNA of this core group before and after an intervention with a specific call to action should show us how ideas have passed and who has been influential. This is however an experiment that needs some designing. We need to have a network in the first place and then we need to have some kind of traceable ‘infection’ in terms of behaviour that we can track through the network. We would also need to measure the network in terms of influenced / influencer. Alternatively we could, more simply, look at the network before and after our intervention to see whether there had been a change in the number of connections to the formal actors – and then examine those new connections in order to trace a source of the new tie.

I’ve been struggling a lot with my data collection over the last couple of months (not time) but have also been unusually dithering about getting going with it properly. In retrospect this may be a reflection on the way my thinking about this has been moving – I have been thinking about Civic Spaces (which I still am) but I should have focused on the people that write those spaces into being. Unless you go down a track of techno-determinism online space is about a manifestation of people and relationships. The technology design can help shape those behaviours in the same way as physical architecture influences offline behaviour but the dynamic force in all of this is brought by the people, the actors, within the space. If I am interested in creating co-produced civic space online then I need to think about the people who will co-create that space in at least as much detail as I consider the technological affordances of those spaces.

I can very easily be accused of over using a few key quotes in my presentations – the main one being this from Manuel Castells:

” Until we rebuild, both from the bottom up and from the top down, our institutes of governance and democracy, we will not be able to stand up to the fundamental challenges that we are facing”

This means that when I was recently asked – “who else talks about the network society?” at a session I was doing recently I thought fair cop – I really need to widen out the context a little and quote some other people. In my defence it really is a lovely quote.

The term ‘Network Society’ was coined by Dutch sociologist Jan van Dijk and was adopted by Castells in his trilogy “The Information Age”. The other principal thinker in this space is Barry Wellman who has been writing about networks and communities ever since writing “The Network City” in 1973.

This gives the concept two different pedigree’s – one from urban geography (Wellman) and one from sociology (Castells). In both cases however the primary motivation for the label is the pre-eminance of the effect of the network within a given situation.
Concentrating on the Castells work, this arises out of the wider thinking around the concept of ‘The information age’. Now – its extremely tricky to make assumptions around this kinds of epochal statements but Castells is a big bold thinker who believes that it the rise of networks rather than then the information that we share about them which is the most significant effect of our post-industrial world. This is of course subject to debate and this is a criticism which is leveled at Castells (Webster 1995) however my personal view is that the recent ascendency of the social network online and the effects of networks on political and civic activities makes this a defensible belief.

There are also a group of writers such as Tapscott and Shirkey who explore the network effect without necessarily situating their work within the definition of the network society – i.e. their narrative is network led but they don’t build on the work of Castells – partly I imagine because they are not sociologists and academics do like to stick within their own field (I’m a little free range myself but this perhaps reflects the fact that I am a practitioner / academic hybrid!!!).

Within my literature review I will be describing the Webster critique in a little more detail and also describing some of the other thinkers who work with the idea of the information society – however for day to day use and final conclusion I am sticking with the Network Society as being the best current description of the what we see happening in the world. I may however try and find another quote.

Its very tempting to think there is a perfect match between social networks and social network analysis – and its true – there is a lot we can do with this to examine online social networks. However in doing this its important to understand what the limits of what we can achieve with it without bringing in other research methods.

Social network analysis is simply a way of visually and statistically mapping the relationships and patterns of behaviours between the actors in an specific social grouping – it could be familial, social, professional or geographical. Its not a new technique – its been around since the 1930s and has been used to map historical populations such as the Medici’s (Padgett and Ansell 1993), social protest movements such as the the Freedom Summer movement in 1964 (MacAdam 1986, 1988) and to map more contemporary university environments (I have a brilliant reference for this and now can’t find it – damn – will be back to this). Its been used to track the progress of epidemics and its been used by Barry Wellman to look at how communities interact (Hampton, K. N., & Wellman, B., 1999). If you want a quick intro to the ideas here then have a look at this Journal of Computer Mediated Communication Journal article that has the key ideas in it.

In many ways social network analysis is about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts with the interactions and patterns formed from these interactions being as significant as the individuals who are interacting. With it sociologists moved beyond looking at individuals and who they are and started considering what they are actually doing.

Given the fact that social networking is the definitive activity of the social web it is not surprising that social network analysis is a primary tool for their exploration and understanding. However to make this analysis useful we really need to understand the social implications of the links that are created when you friend or follow someone. ‘Follow’ can mean a lot of different things in the twitterverse. Initially it was a politeness – she’s followed me, I should follow her back. Once the spammers turned up then we all got more careful about this and so ‘follow’ becomes more active rather than cultural – who you follow says something about you and you may be consciously aware of this.

That’s not to say that its not useful to map a local twitter network for example – I’ve been working on this this week for a client and once you have an idea of who the principal civic actors are then analysis of their online relationships via twitter can give you a sense of how/if they are connected. Its possible to be more sophisticated about this purely data led exploration – for example you can look at @mentions which can give a good sense of proximity if they are reciprocal and also retweets which can be a measure of reach. But in terms of analysis of relationships its not accurate to say that you can map a social network by this method – we just don’t know enough about the motivations and meaning of any of the measurable actions.

Its also worth noting the difficulty of sampling real time networks such as twitter – its a moving target and if you are looking at interactions such as @mentions rather than just follow/followed relationships then you need to make some sensible decisions as to when not just what you will be sampling.

Its also worth noting that you are strictly limited to ego-centric network analysis rather than looking at whole networks as lack of consistency about association between online and offline identities and also the unbounded nature of our online relationships means that we do not fit out interactions within neat and complete networks such a single organisations or associations. You have to take into account the ability of online social networks to connect you beyond your usual social sphere – to access expertise or interest, support or scrutiny from further away – both socially and perhaps geographically – and it seems that to use social network analysis with online networks you need to understand the underlying social structures first. This spread of connection has been one of the principal criticisms of online networks:

“…some analysts have feared that email, the Internet, and other reduced-cues CMCs are unable to sustain broadly-based, multiplex relations (see the review in [Wellman et al., 1996]; [Garton & Wellman, 1995]). These fears are extended by the boutique approach to online offerings which fosters a specialization of ties within any one of thousands of topic-oriented news groups ([Kling, 1995]; [Kollock & Smith, 1996]). However, this tendency toward specialization is counter-balanced by the ease of forwarding online communication to multiple others. Through personal distribution lists Internet participants can sustain broad, multiplex, supportive relationships ([Wellman & Gulia, 1997]; [Wellman, 1997]). As yet, there has been little research into the extent to which specialized, online, single relations grow into multiplex ties over time.” (Wellman, 1997)

However – the fact that our networks online are in most cases diffuse and unbounded means we need can’t define a network and then analyse the relationships within it in a meaningful way unless we are given access to the complete data set from a site like Facebook (I can really see that request going down well) and then find a really really big computer to deal with it. Instead we rely on an ego-centric approach which unravels relationships based on a single individual or core of individuals – this is in fact called the snowball method – which seems rather apt.

So, we can use twitter (which is more open to interrogation than Facebook and so an easier starting point) in order to do some initial analysis and to start that snowball rolling but to put more detail on this we would need to use other research techniques.

This is more consistent with the literature – more detailed Social Network Analysis data is usually collected via questionnaire and interview techniques rather than analysis of online networks – or rather I have not found any case study examples based on analysis of purely online environments that have not been supplemented by these methods even where they have carried out details log and traffic analysis. There are multiple case studies which have looked at email traffic for example but these will be cross referenced with demographic databases (not surprisingly you can find a number of studies that look at the social networks within academic institutions).

Surveys or interviews usually take the form of either name generators – which ask you who you know or name interpretors which ask you to define your relationships with the people in a described group. Where we start with someone’s twitter followers/followed it makes sense to follow this up with a name interpretation questionnaire which also has the option to add in offline contacts with the same type of relationships. If I want to use this technique in order to explore the relationships that we find between civic creators – something that would be extremely useful in terms of understanding the local civic online space then I will need to find some way of describing the relationships that we might find. Given that I will have chance to do this with a couple of research sites I will be exploring this in preliminary interviews with some of the principal actors that we have found through the research and then asking them to define some of these relationships for themselves. I prefer to do this rather than try to impose relationship descriptions because relationships – as we all know – are complicated:

“Relations (sometimes called strands) are characterized by content, direction and strength” (Wellman et al 1997)

We are trying to understand firstly how people relate to each other and then the degree to which they do so – their centrality. Centrality is a measure of how many connections an individual has but is also an important measure with respect to the whole network. Its an obvious fact that denser networks are more resilient to have an individual member removed but may also be more resistant to new people or ideas. Centrality can also help us to understand where individuals are critical to holding networks together and where their removal might form a cut-point in the network.

Ties are, in this context, either strong or weak. Of course the cut-point for a network may also be considered to be a bridge – or tie – between two different networks. Either way they are useful people to identify. The seminal paper on this “The Strength of Weak Ties” (Granovetter, 1973) explores the idea that weak ties are in fact more effective for passing information and learning new things. He describes the strength as ties like this:

“Most intuitive notions of the “strength” of an interpersonal tie should be satisfied by the following definition: the strength of a tie is a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie.” (Granovetter, 1973)

So though it is important to understand the strength of ties within a network I am really not sure what we will find when we explore this within a group of civic creators in a locality – another good reason to do the research.

Unless you are going to take a structural deterministic view of things and say that the networks are causing the behaviours of individuals rather than just describing them (which I’m not) then social network analysis is primarily a tool for exploration and discovery – a way of seeing groups of people in new ways in terms of the way in which they interact and potenitally influence each other.

This brings me my final point on the limitations of social network analysis with respect to civic communities – privacy and identity. We already know that many people prefer to keep their identity anonymous when talking about political issues (have a read of Michelle Ide Smith’s findings which are relevant at the hyperlocal level) which means that we may only be able to reach these people online and they may not be willing to share more information about who they are connected to because to of the inferences that you can make from this knowledge at a local level.

I think one other consideration also has to be to what extent your survey sample understands the publicity of their actions or whether they will find an analysis of their twitter interactions to be intrusive. This is another issue which I will be approaching with caution with some initial interviews as we are planning on gathering a group of civic creators whom we have isolated through an online research process and will see whether they feel surveilled or appreciated.

Social network analysis is a visual and accessible technique that can provide you with a quick snapshot of activity and connections for a network. It can expose connections you were not aware of and make clear the importance of individuals who you may not have been aware of. However, its unlikely that its going to do this if you rely just on the output data sets from online social networks themselves as we do not have enough clarity and agreement about what the relationships captured with the follow/followed actions actually are. Twitter (and other sites) are an excellent starting point for a snowball approach to data collection but to get robust data you need to ensure that you carry out follow up surveys and where possible interviews.

As a final point – its interesting to speculate what a network like Path might mean in this context. Path limits your network to 50 people and is specifically targeted at sharing things with friends and family rather than creating a wider network (good Wired article on this here). If they manage to create critical mass then it will be interesting to compare the data from Path with more conventionally gathered survey data – and to see if your what your network looks like if take physical world limitations of scale and apply them online – but this falls clearly into the category of things to think about post PHD.

PS this finally gets to the bottom of exactly why I find Twinfluence and its friends a little like social media snake oil…..very satisfying

Much of the thinking within my thesis is highly influenced by the behaviours and effects of communities – specifically geographically defined communities. However to limit my research to just this kind of civic activity is to ignore much of the online participation that is reaching beyond the purely social. Digital activism covers a range of activities, usually focused around single or at least tightly focused sets of issues. In this post I am really looking at four areas:

  • Large scale campaigning specialist campaigning organisations
  • More general digital activism, perhaps from traditional groups like Amnesty
  • Political bloggers
  • Social reporters


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