This post describes the state of play with respect to the social network analysis process we have been using for We Live Here.  In short – we have a method but we need to be better at using it.

Overview

A complete social network analysis of a neighbourhood or community would be a time consuming and expensive piece of work. If your intent is to use the discovered networks as the basis for community engagement activities then argueably an extensive exercise is not good value for money becuase of the dynamic nature of networks and the need to re-investgigate the network to discover the changes.

With We Live Here our objective has been to sample the network only to the extent which is necessary to create enough linkages to make it possible to create a dynamic entity which can then go on to self-manage further discovery and growth. Essentially we are looking for a catalyst group which will then work to find and connect the wider network within the community.

The sampling therefore needs to be robust enough to give confidece that we have found useful people but lightweight enough to be affordable to implement across large areas.

In Social Network Analysis terms this is broadly speaking a ‘snowball’ approach which explores the network from multiple points of entry rather than doing a complete sampling from specific individuals – in essence we are trying to understand reach rather than depth of social ties.

This echoes the practical sense in which we are using the SNA in order to support communication primarily rather than creating social cohesion which we see following on as a positive byproduct of improved communicative ties.

We are also trying to find community actors who are not currently participating in ways which are already known to the public sector as well as creating an overview of public sector activities in the area or topic we are examining.

This search for new kinds of participants could start in of variety of places. We focus on an online search which yields the kind of partcipants who have the skills that we need for We Live Here and also highlights new kinds of informal civic participation.

The process is now defined as follows:

1) Research scope – agree the online search terms and also the initial list for face to face interviews
2) Carry out online and initial SNA in parallel
3) Pause for analysis and definition of community interviews
4) Conduct community interviews
5) Pause again for data analysis
6) at this point we either loop until we are happy with the results or
7) Check data as part of Social Media Surgery conversation
8) present results in online directory + community meeting

With this kind of approach the most important element is finding the right point of entry into the network. If we do not discover this at point (3) then further research is needed before we start the community SNA process. Different techniques can be employed to find these points of entry and part of the agility of this approach is to ensure that you do not commit time to the process before you feel confident that you have identified these points.

The initial research as part of the pilot process tool at least 10 days per site. We expect to halve this for the second iteration and our ambition is to acheive 3 days research for the final process.

Where does this go wrong?

Our biggest mistake is in not remembering that this is a rapid sampling method rather than a complete analysis.  Our objective is highly tactical and we need to keep at the from of our minds the fact that we are just looking for the point of entry and critical mass rather than a full picture which would be unattainable on the resources we are putting to this.  For the next iterations we need to be better at limiting the time we spend on dead ends in network terms and keep coming back to find a new way in.

We (and this is really me) also need to be more disciplined about regular research reviews.  Its very tempting to leave this to look after itself but the data needs to be looked at systematically on a regular basis to avoid falling down a rabbit hole.

Where does it go right?

Overall we are pleased with the method and are looking forward to trying it out from scratch with the next sites (more on that soon).  Its proving robust and also effective at helping to change the dynamic of community conversations.  In terms of formalising it I plan at some point to draw out and document some of the methods we have used to find the starting point as well as tightening up the write up of the discovery process used once we have the point of entry.

What’s next?

We are currently working on the plan for the next 12 months.  We have commitments from the Council of course but we’re delighted that the NHS is also going to be formally involved in the next stage.  We increasingly think that there is huge strengths in this kind of model being open to different public bodies and we are looking forward to exploring the practicalities of what this might mean.

I also need to write up our first community meetings – will do that this week – promise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is another action research note on We Live Here – the Brighton and Hove Creative Councils project. You can read previous posts here. The last few weeks have been spent in parallel project planning and also starting the community mapping exercise.

We had a really good team meeting last week where we cleared a lot of ground which was great. Our next milestone will be a first workshop with external stakeholders – really interested parties from the City and then the launch of the project website.

One of the strengths of having a project consortium from a number of different organisations is that we are able to reflect very different views and because we have a lot of mutual respect turn these into constructive positive conversations.  I also increasingly believe that you do need some external sand to make a pearl in the organisational oyster and that a Council led project would be more more risk averse.  Hopefully with our close partnership we are going to be able to balance disruption and risk in a good way.

We are trying out an agile project management approach which means we are working in discrete iterations and then pausing for reflection. The first of these iterations will involve piloting our approach with 3 communities and also creating a prototype of the technology. This will take us to the end of February and we will then reflect before starting the next iteration. One of the things which we have also done in order to keep project direction and continuity between interations is to capture the values and aims that we mean to judge and manage our actions against. I will write more about this another time but they are:

  • Agile
  • Actively Open
  • Postive byproducts
  • Democratic
  • Creating self-efficacy

The wording is horrible – will correct before we publish properly.  In order to get organised we have divided the project into a few different work streams:

  • Mapping – Our method for finding and understanding the networks and spaces which already exist in the communities
  • Communication – straightforward updates etc
  • Engagement – talking to stakeholders about the project and getting them involved in developing the vision
  • Governance – how will the civic spaces work and also how will they interface the the Council
  • Technology
  • Project management and governance

Yes – we do seem to like the word ‘governance’. This is a slightly more granular breakdown than we had originally but it makes much more sense.  We’ve divided it up partly to eat the elephant but partly in order to keep use the whole project team to lead different strands of the work so that we keep a fresh perspective when we bring stuff back to gether in our two-weekly meetings.

We have made progress across all the strands and we hope to get the website up and running before we have our first project workshop with our wider stakeholders (not the communities we are working with) on the 16th December. More on that when we manage it. This post is concerned with the community mapping which we (public-i) are running.

What are we actually doing?
The aim is to create a picture of the 3 pilot areas that includes:

  • Engagement activities
  • Community activities
  • Civic spaces
  • Networks and interest groups

We want to understand the ‘network of networks’ in the area, identify the key people who connect these networks and also to work out where we don’t have connectivity. We will be looking at online and offline activity. Once we have this then we are going to be putting it together into a community directory website that shows everything we have found (subject to permissions – see below) – it should hold a mirror up to the community. We will then be holding an open spaces style meeting with the community to present some ideas as to what they could do with this – more on that in another post.

The methodology for this is built on the social media audit work but uses an additional Social network analysis questionnaire. We are taking a ‘snowball’ approach by starting with the project team and working outwards from there. In parallel we will conduct a physical walk around and online search which we expect to uncover some activity which is outside of the current engagement process – but we shall have to see.

I thought it would be helpful to list what we are using:

  • First iteration: SNA questnnaire and data collection sheet, Social Media Audit search and data qualification
  • Second iteration: Crib sheet of ‘nodes’ from the first iteration, A map of the area, SNA questionnaire (updated), AudioBoo or something similar (like this as found by Paul ) for capturing and geotagging physical civic spaces

The civic space prototype will be in the form of a community directory and will be built using Citizenscape – this is probably the nearest example we have in the meantime.

Our intention is to turn this mapping process into a self-reporting tool – we are trying to work out what the least possible intial information is to then be able to turn the process over to the community to map itself. This is going to be essential if this approach is not going to be incredibly expensive – as has been the problem with other social network analysis community projects. We’ll be working on this viral mapping in the new year once we have completed the bulk of the this iteration.

First interation vs 2nd iteration
Yes – we are using the word iteration in two senses – one to refer to the overarching project iteration and the other is within the mapping process. I am now talking about the mapping iterations.

We have, at time of writing, done the intial interviews witht the project team which has generated around 40 contacts across the 3 pilot sites. Its clear from the data we gathered that one of the sites has been the subject of a lot of prior engagement activity where the others have had less contact with BHCC in this way. Its going to be interesting to look at how this effects the implementation of the project across the different sites.

We are now filling in some of the blanks in that data (mainly where people knew organosations but not individuals to talk to) and also carrying out the online search. We will then have a short list of people within the pilot site communities to start talking for the next iteration of the mapping. I am hoping/assuming that the online search will throw up some activity that we don’t already know about.

When do we talk to real people?
This first iteration is very much within the project team but the next step is to speak to the communities that we will be working with. I say will be working with – the first step is really to find one person in the community who is reasonably active and connected (and should be highlighted by the first iteration) and then asking them to act as a community host – to introduce us to some people and go on a physical walkaround and point out civic spaces and important places.

Where BHCC has already been active this person should be fairly obvious which is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that we would be piggy backing on what is already a good relationship but bad in that realtionship already has embeded ways of working and outstanding promisies and commitments on both sides that we will of necessity be disrupting. Disruption is a good thing when you are trying to innovate but alarming for the disrupted. We are realising the strength of the project being supported by but not run by the Council in that we are able to be more disruptive that we would be from within the organisation but it is still have to be extremely careful to keep this as a positive activity.

We have also been extremely cautious (too cautious?) about taking the concept out to the public – hence our lack of a outward facing website for example – because we are still concerned that we haven’t got a simple and accessible way of describing what we are doing. Happily Jo Ivens has been making real progress with this and we think we are nearly there. Clearly this blog is no place for a simple and accessible description so I will leave the big reveal for the website launch.

There are a lot of sensitivies around actually taking this research into the field becuase we risk damaging important relationships – however we are have safeguards in place on this which I describe in the next section.

When talking about these concerns though we see a real range of feelings in the project team – which is probably helpful.  Speaking personally I find it fairly difficult to distinguish when we are ‘going council’ and being very risk averse and when we have legitimate concerns.  I hope this will start to become clearer once we are out and the field and talking to ‘real’ people.

However we need to crack on with this – the longer we wait to get people involved the more difficult it is to really co-produce the solution – we need to be a bit quicker and a bit bolder.

Research disclaimer
We need to get a research disclaimer agreed that will give some clarity to the people we are going to be asking for data from but which doesn’t restrict us too much. We need to give people reassurance that we won’t be just mining people’s address book but that we will treat information sensitively. We also felt it was important that we didn’t approach someone’s contact without permission or ideally an introduction so we have asked for that as well. The draft disclaimer is below though this is still subject to some editing:

We are conducting research as part of the We Live Here Project. You can read more about the project here. This first stage of the project involves finding out what networks, groups and active individuals are within your community and then we will be creating a directory for general use. This directory will include organisations and websites but will not have names of people unless they personally agree to be included in this way.

Your responses will help us to find these networks. We would like to include your responses in this directory but we will not contact anyone in your network without your permission. If you think that we need to exclude particular bits of information then please let us know and we will not make them public. In summary:

1) Any websites or organisational names you suggest will be included in the final directory
2) Any names you give us will not be used without the permission of the person
3) We will not contact anyone whose name you have given us without your permission
4) If you think any of the information you have given needs to be treated more sensitively then please let us know

This is now with the project team for discussion but please comment if you have any thoughts on this.

Statement of intent
This research disclaimer is going to be used with our ‘statement of intent’. We intend our work with the communities to be co-productive – we don’t want to dictate the shape of their civic spaces becuase we think its the wrong approach – and just wrong. it would be disingenuous howeber not to be clear about what our aspiration is however.

As an aside – I think this are two important elements of ‘network society engagement’:

  • We can’ pretend we have no agenda or beliefs so lets state them clearly from the start
  • Co-production means all participants should benefit so lets be clear about that as well

We are still working on our statement of intent but it will have the following elements:

  • We want to strengthen democratic process
  • We think we can help do with by creating a network of networks within communities
  • The governance of the civic space this creates needs to be managed by the community but we don’t know how
  • We aim to be Agile, Actively Open, Postive byproducts, democratic,to create self-efficacy

The question of governance of the civic space – and its curation – are big meaty issues that we are working on at the moment so we can have some draft proposals for the open meetings early next year.

What can we do for you
One of the other things we have added in before the second iteration is a very explicit ‘what can we do for you’ question. Once we start talking to our pilot sites we want to be gathering information about what they want and need from the start so that we can be confident of offering some positive by products for the project as planned.

Why are we doing this?
We are also starting to form a much clearer idea of what the benefits of these spaces could be beyond the wider democratic purpose which is so abstract. In short we think we will offer greater resilience within communities as a result of strengthening networks at the same time as providing an open space for people to tell their stories in a place where they will be listened to.

Next step will be to create some metrics that will help us judge how well we are doing against the many objectives and ambitions I have listed here.

Expect another post after our workshop in a couple of weeks – and expect everything to change as no plan survives contact with the outside world!

As regular readers will be aware….I have a bee in my bonnet about the need for someone to start building civic spaces online – spaces which are designed to support civic and political discourse rather than designed to sell us stuff. However it’s all very well having the idea – you then have to figure out how to build it.

This post provides an overview of the social media audit – a piece of research that is carried out before you set up a civic space in order to gain an objective view of who you should be including in the conversation. I use ‘we’ a lot in this post as though I had the bright idea of doing the audit and put some structure in place its my team at Public-i who have done most of the detailed development of the process.  We’ll be blogging more about this over at the Public-i blog but here is the first draft of the overview that will end up in the thesis.

In essence what we are trying to do is to find the conversations which are already taking place in the local online space.  More importantly we are trying to find the active individuals in order to create a network response to civic interactions – civic spaces are going to be defined by the networks that share them as much as by the content.

A bit of background

When I started looking at this I thought about this idea in terms of government building these spaces. I was influenced by Stephen Coleman’s thinking around ‘A Civic Commons in Cyberspace’ and also Castells’ work that shows the insidious power of media conglomerates and negative impact that gas on objectivity in the press that this brings to the fourth estate (Castells, “Communication Power”). This, combined with the fact that I have been immersed in working with Local Government for almost the last 10 years led me design the “Virtual Town Hall” pilot which you can read about here. The name really gives it away – I was imagining a civic space built by government – echoing real world civic architecture – and then used by the public.

I persisted with this idea for a while and blamed the fact that we were being slow to implement the technology for the fact that the pilot sites were not taking flight. There is no doubt that we were being slow with the technology implementation but I now believe that the reasons for the pilot sites not getting off the ground were more complex than just that and that there were a number of issues with the way I had originally designed the virtual town hall solution, the main one being that the original project design didn’t have the right role for the community. We envisaged using unmoderated community content and then using community moderators or champions to widen involvement but this was really a compromise en route to what has become the inclusion of the affordance of co-production in the final pilot sites. We have to accept that we can only work effectively with the public online if we don’t try and control the conversation that the community moderators were in some way an attempt to manage risk from the point of view of the Council without truly considering their wishes in this.

However once it became clear that these spaces, even if facilitated by government, needed to be equally owned by all stakeholders another issue arose; who do we include in the conversation? The community that you contact to create the civic space is going to integral to how it behaves and even though we would expect participation to shift throughout the life of a civic space that initial group is significant in terms of how likely you are to get an independent conversation started and also in terms of what tone is set for the space from the outset.

Its turns out that picking this group was causing project paralysis – no-one could get started until they knew who to include in the process. I’m going to do some follow up interviews on this point but I think that the issue here was a mix of risk and representativeness. The first was a concern about making the ‘wrong’ choice because we weren’t aware of the full picture. The second is more complex – but I think highlights the real democratic tension here which is the fact that the people who are active online are not representative of the general population and this is both a good and a bad thing. Good in that they are more likely to be civic and active offline as well (OXIS, Coleman) but bad in that they are not well…representative. The solution here is fiendishly simple and fiendishly difficult – involve the elected representatives – but that’s for another post.

Social Media Audits – a solution to the problem

The starting point as the fact that a civic space can’t be initiated until you have some idea as to who might be participating.  The social media audit is a response to this problem – its a systematic piece of research that provides a representative snapshot of the local informal civic conversation so that you can make am informed decision about who to include in the initial iteration of the civic space. Not only that – practically speaking – it gives you the list of people to contact , the conversational lures they are interested and a view of the interactions which are already going on.

We wanted to create an objective view of what was happening so that we provided a starting point for engagement with the local civic content creators. We can’t expect to find everything – and the content will change from week to week – but we were looking for a way to provide a starting point that would then be built on rather than freezing the results in time. Its important that the output of the audit also provides the means to extend and continue to search so that the civic space is created in a state of always being open to new voices.

Objective is a difficult thing to achieve as ultimately this process comes down to making value judgements about which sites should be included in the civic space. What we have therefore done is to create as robust and re-creatable process around the creation of the data set and then been as transparent as possible in terms of qualification of that data set down to something which is manageable for analysis and then for engagement with individuals.

This has deliberately been designed in this way rather than a piece of more quantitative analysis around the number of sites located in a specific area for example as we are trying to uncover individuals with specific intents rather than just to content that they are creating online – we are trying to connect to people as well as places.

What are we looking for?

The audit is designed to find not only an overview of the informal civic participation in the area but specifically to focus in on the significant content creators who will be the most vocal contributors to the civic space. The choice of the word ‘significant’ is deliberate here – we’re not trying to judge influence – just activity.

Significance is a fairly subjective term and so we try and define this with the site hosts to make sure we have a clear idea of what we are looking for. Once a site has been found via the relevant search terms then broadly we are after:

  • Persistence – we are looking for sites and individuals that are active over a reasonable period of time – or are linked to a specific campaign – not 2 post blogs that have been set up with the best intention
  • Audience – we can’t easily judge audience but we are looking for indications that the creator is aware of an audience and wants to interact with it
  • Constructive – we are looking for voices that want to improve their community not just complain

This last one is the most difficult – judging intent from content is extremely tenuous. Another way of looking at this is to say that we looking for content and creators who would satisfy a simple code of conduct test for any community website. Codes of conduct exist to ensure that interactions are respectful and do not insult some basic principles. The point of this filter is to try and rule some of these people out from the start. I see this as largely a pragmatic decision – no council is going to put together a civic space which includes inappropriate content from the start – but its one that needs to be kept under consideration to make sure that the space remains inclusive and open.

Its also worth noting that we usually issue a health warning with respect to language – the language online can be robust but this needs to be included. This issue of language is a cultural one where you need to understand that the social web can use a different tone to that which the more formal world is used to.

What’s the process?

To state the obvious – the internet is huge – and if you try and do this on a rolling basis then you just keep searching forever.  Instead we create a snapshot which we know will not include all the content but will be representative of the local civic space to an acceptable degree.  Here is how we go about creating that snapshot:

  • Define a matrix of search terms: This point about language is relevant from the onset of the audit. The process starts with a definition of search terms based on place and topic. We are trying to identify the language that the local residents are using to talk about where they live and about current affairs. We are seeking the stories that are currently active as these are the ones which illuminate activity.
  • Create a data set: we then use a combination of advanced use of google and link analysis to create an initial data set. This can be done largely automatically and then gets deduped and cleaned up. This second step may create a data set of over 1000 sites.
  • Qualify the data set: Once we have the data set narrowed down to around 3-400 then there is a manual qualification task which is the really time-consuming bit as we check each site against the significance criteria and also categorise it for place, topic, type of site and a few other metrics. We also highlight interesting examples – and also the downright odd stuff that you find online.

At this point we would hope to have a well qualified data set of around 200 sites that give us a good overview of the local informal civic activity. We do not know if these numbers of going to provide a useful benchmark – we’ve run the process a number of times now and they seem consistent but we expect them to keep increasing. However – at the moment – we believe that the 200 sites for a County or urban area is a reasonable benchmark to work against.

And the analysis

This is my favourite bit…

Once we have a coded up spreadsheet then we can do some straightforward statistical analysis and look at the spread of sites and content creators in terms of location and topic. We can see what proportion of activity is on Facebook for example (yes – we even search there), examine interactions on local media sites and see if there are pockets of activity around a specific place. We then use this to identity clusters of sites for a short case study analysis – which is really focused on looking at what is causing the cluster and how it might be used to introduce the group into the civic space.

The other piece of analysis is to use twitter as the starting point of a social network analysis of the space. This is really just a starting point for this and can be considered to be a snowball approach to an open network (Wasserman) rather than a real piece of SNA but what is does show is the potential reach of the civic creators. For my own research purposes I then ask the civic creators we have found to complete a more through social network analysis questionnaire which looks more deeply not just at their online but also their offline networks.

What don’t we do?

In developing the audit process we considered using semantic analysis tools bit in the end concluded that they didn’t offer the sophistication of search combinations that we were after and, more importantly, are designed to find content rather than individuals.

I think we could probably use more of the mainstream analysis tools but to date have not found anything that delivers what we are after – we’ll keep researching this however I will post findings on that when I have time.

It may be possible to have the same result through word of mouth as opposed to this fairly labour intensive research – ie by asking community participants to self report activity. My concern with this approach is that many of the sites that we find are not really describing themselves as civic – they are just people who are doing something that they think is interesting and they don’t feel the need to define it.

And the impact?

Its too early to say what the overall impact will be on the civic space but we have definitely succeeded in overcoming the project paralysis issue and have also been able to shape appropriate approaches and messages in order to involve these content creators in the initial proposition of the shared civic space and I wouldn’t want to try and instigate a site without doing this kind of research as we have not yet failed to turn up content and individuals that the host was not aware of before.

Even without knowing what impact it will have on the civic space its clearly a really effective way of getting a feel for the local activity in order to shape any kind of intervention online.

Its also an excellent way to deal with the people who are still saying that they don’t need to engage online – this is as robust a process as we can make it and is carried out based on search terms that the host defines – excellent and relevant local facts to put in front of anyone who thinks digital engagement is still optional at this point.

We are going to continue to work on the process and also on the automation of the process where possible. We are also trying to build in the idea of ‘discovery’ where we start to set the civic space in listening mode in order to uncover new civic voices but this is still early days – I’ll keep you posted.

As ever comments on this are very welcome.

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.

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