Thursday, February 12, 2004

Networks aren't necessarily communities

Kevin Barron, Systems Manager at UCSB's Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (thank you Google!) posted this comment earlier today:

Anne, just to let you know I quoted you at Etech yesterday during a session w/ Joi, Howard et al. The quote which I read was an aside in this thread, and I'm hoping you will expand on:

"when focus shifted from 'online community' to 'social software,' associated methods and theories shifted too. The (quantitative) structural and systems approaches of social software leave little room for (qualitative) processual approaches to community or cultural interaction. But more on that some other time..."

My (pointed) question was not clearly phrased, but essentially I was asking the panel how we ensure that we are are building community rather than just playing with the cool new toys. So please expand on the above...

Thanks Kevin - good to be virtually present :) I don't know how much expansion you want (that's always a dangerous request of an academic ;)) but I'll try and, Curious George that I am, hope that you'll also share their response(s) to your question.

My position assumes several points: first, that we have in fact moved from trying to enable communities to trying to enable networks; second, that community is best understood in qualitative and processual terms; and third, that networks are most often described in quantitative and structural terms. You can, of course, take issue with any of these assumptions, but for my purposes they stand.

And really my point is very simple: just because a site can connect you to a lot of people doesn't mean that there is any value in those connections. (But neither does it mean there is no value.)

Social network analysis draws out structures and patterns, which is all well and good. But it doesn't tell us what those patterns mean to the people involved, nor does it adequately express how relationships are highly contextual (i.e. shifting) and how meaning is actively constructed. I find it interesting and important that social network analysis is favoured in disciplines like economics and psychology, but not in disciplines like anthropology and sociology - arguably the only disciplines dedicated exclusively to the study of people's social and cultural practices. There are several reasons for this, most related to paradigm shifts in social and cultural theory, away from structural explanation. (If you want to know more about this, just let me know.)

Social software - based on social network analysis - has an amazing ability to connect (collect?) people but connection and community are not the same thing.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a community as a group of people living together and having certain attitudes and interests in common. This is a qualitative measure of closeness: the values and ways of life of the group. On the other hand, a network comprises a group or system of interconnected people. This is a quantitative measure of closeness: the number of people and intersections (nodes).

When Howard Rheingold wrote The Virtual Community - waaay back in 1994 :) - he was interested in online social interactions - processes not structures - or how people came together and the value they placed on those online relationships and activities. He also suggested a more accurate title for his book:

People who use computers to communicate, form friendships that sometimes form the basis of communities, but you have to be careful to not mistake the tool for the task and think that just writing words on a screen is the same thing as real community.

Ten years later the tools may be different, but the danger remains the same. Bringing people together does not necessarily mean community has been created. It doesn't even mean that processes of community building have been enabled or will be supported.

But I'll stop here in case I've gotten off-track, or am not answering your questions and concerns :) Please let me know if I can help further.

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