Digital Networks,…, and real ones.


This post is part of a short series on the benefits and shortcomings of ‘networks’ as an explanation of many things in our world. In previous editions, I first gave a short introduction to mathematical network theory and secondly I discussed whether explanations in terms of networks have added value over more simple explanations. In this post I focus on a third observation, which is not so much about networks as an explanation for social phenomena but about using experience with social media as a reference for thinking about social networks.

It can hardly be coincidental that the first film about facebook and its founder is called ‘the social network’. It is a matter of fact, so to say, that for most people the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of social networks is social media. This means that the network is used as a metaphor or model for something in the real world and Facebook and Twitter, in turn are used as a model for understanding networks. Is this helpful?  In a way: yes.  The binary markup of social networks sites bares close resemblance to the mathematical network theory I discussed in the first post of this series. But social networks come with their own misconceptions which may hinder understanding ‘real’ networks. Let’s discus a few.

First, social networks sites carry a focus on connectivity. They draw your attention to how well and with whom you are able to connect. This bears resemblance to mathematical network theory. Social media provide the perfect entry point for the importance of social connections and the way these work for us. But I guess I no longer need to stress that Facebook friends are not necessarily ‘real’ friends. The binary (on or off) nature of connections in network theory and social media is a course grained, not to say rude, approximation of reality. If you would track down all your digital contacts and list for what reasons you would be able and would want to use these connections, you would find each reason has its own associated social circle (and you would most probably defriend some people too). This qualitative view of your network is really much more insightful than just counting your friends. Connection is really a multidimensional concept and needs to be treated that way to be useful, unfortunately social media do not encourage us to look at it this way.

Second, more is not necessarily more. Statistically it may be important to have and maintain contacts with many others, but this is only one of many network roles. One example from mathematical network theory is what is called a ‘broker’. His special quality is not connectivity but his ability to connect two networks which are fairly disconnected otherwise, such as two schools of thought. Even in network theory which emphasizes the edges over the nodes it does count to whom you are connected, even if this is only to have access to their connections. Another example is the openness of the network. According to this forge article connecting to people who are different in many respects to you is an important predictor of academic success.  So, while social media stress (not unselfishly) the amount of friends you have it, connecting to the right people counts more. Network theory and social media may give you some hints on who they might be, but you have to cut through the quantity stuff first.

Let me finish with this one: and, if social media is your basis to understand networks, this may be a shock to you. You are not at the center of your own network. Network centrality is an important concept in social network analysis. Being central in the network means, you are the one which is most influential in the network, defined in terms of connectivity with others.  In your company, the CEO is likely to have the best centrality, although this is not always the case. Are you the most important and central person in your network? Aren’t you always the central person if the network is defined by you and your social circle? Not by definition. It may be a question about what aspect of the interaction with friends, you are looking at, but the likelihood someone in your social circle has better connectivity and influence than you even within your circle of friends is quite likely. We are all important and what we do matters, but we are seldom the most important, and really: that is ok.

Social media are in many ways a good introduction to mathematical network theory. I like to see them as a serious game on network theory, really. But they do carry weaknesses such as a focus on quantity of friends and a tendency to make you feel center of –at least- ‘your’ world. Moreover they carry the weaknesses of mathematical network theory, such as treating connectivity in a binary way with them. Simply put: as a reference for understanding social media are fine only keep in mind they are a –non neutral- abstraction: not the real thing.

Reading more.

I wrote about the importance of metaphor in my post “Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations”. I discussed several applications of network theory to marketing in my posts “Modeling the connected customer” and “The Traveling Influence Problem”.

This post is part of a series. In my previous post I introduced network theory and assessed its value as an explanation. My next post I will discuss central and decentral control in networks.

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