Posts Tagged ‘SNA’

The dichotomy of the virtual world versus the real world is a lie.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain.

There are no longer two separate spheres of existence. Activity online has become more ubiquitous, commonplace. There is only one real world and online interactions are just one of the many stages we perform upon within it. It has become another venue in the same way we in habit other spaces such as out home or the bowling alley or school.

Nancy Baym, Microsoft Research principal researcher and author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age is an active tweeter. Recently, she tweeted a link to an article about by Paul Miller about what happened when he decided to unplug from the Internet for a year.

Talk about unexpected consequences.

The second sentence in his essay is, “One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.” This statement isn’t shocking, we’ve heard people say variations of this before. What is more telling is his first sentence,

I was wrong”.

Why his experience didn’t work out the way he thought it would is played out in this passage, “I drew her [his young niece] a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.”

Internet I

He made a mistake that all but doomed his experience to end with a feeling of desolate isolation as opposed to the  feeling of freedom he was thinking. When he illustrated the Internet for his niece, he showed it the way an IT person might, a network of various bits of electronica connected by cords and cables.

But the Internet is far more than that. A more accurate depiction would have been a network of all of the family, friends, and acquaintances in his life linked together by lines of varying thicknesses. Some lines might be doubled or tripled, and maybe even different colors.

The Internet isn’t about computers and smartphone and tablets; it’s about people and how we connect with each other. It’s about the myriad types of relationships we can initiate and maintain with keystrokes, images and sound. It’s about who we contact and why we contact them

Internet II

At the end of the day, the Internet is about people and their process of using the technology to connect, not that machines that facilitate the act of connecting. This is true whether you are talking about the alphabet, train travel or email.and  how often; it’s about how close we are to them and what methods we use to contact them

Miller’s experiment ties back to a tweet that Baym posted later on, “So important to study old media because otherwise we think everything is new and we are historically special. That’s me talking.”

In the same way that living without a phone is hard for most of us in the First and Second worlds to imagine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without connection through the internet: email, social networking sites, message boards, etc. While Miller initially enjoyed things he felt he was missing, he ultimately found that he was engaging in the same behaviors he blamed on the Internet. He stopped leaving the house and would passively watch TV all day. Without tools such as Skype, email and Twitter, he began to feel the social disconnect that would occur for many of us if our Internet access was cut off.

The lesson learned is that while the hardware is new, the attitudes and behaviors are the same. From the alphabet to television people expressed concerns about how a particular communication technology was going to degrade the quality of our relationships and civilization  itself.

What Paul Miller discovered is that once a new technology becomes integrated into society it becomes enmeshed in the fabric of our relationships. It is the rejection of new communication technologies that can have a negative impact on our ability to be fully present in the lives of those we know and love, not new technologies.

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Wellman asked the Community Question: How does the nature of a given community affect and are affected by the the community at large” How does the macro structure affect the composition, structure and contents of interpersonal ties and how does the constellation of social ties that form a network affect larger social structures (1999,p. 2). He, I think rightly, refers to Granovetter’s findings on the functions of weak ties vs strong ties[1]. In the Wellman quote I see Fischer nodding his head in agreement when describes the interpersonal bonds as creating society interaction. Everything, from getting advice to gossiping to falling in love, is another building block that forms (or hinders the formation of) network ties. Our interlocked network ties are what form the fabric of what we find community. This reminds me of Fairhurst and Putnam’s article on how discourse forms community (2004). And while they use the term “organization” this can just as easily reflect a community structure. In finding work in the community with people he knows and getting married and building his family in that same community, Mr N is at once being shaped by as well as helping to shape the community. Being shaped by in the manner in which the community serves as a template for his life and shaping it in his and his wife’s addition to the existing social structure, reinforcing its behaviors and attitudes towards things such as government agencies, for example.

Bott’s (1957) examination of the effect of spousal relationships on the social network they form and the networks those ties comprise. Succinctly, the greater the separation of the masculine and feminine domains was in the family, the denser, and more localized the strong ties were. This was also was also predictive of a higher degree of multiplexity, something that Haythornethwaite (2005) would point to as an indicator of greater tie strength. One of the things I extrapolated from her discussion of the N’s was that while weak ties can be helpful in getting employment, those weaker ties weren’t as important for employment in these network. I would put forth that because Mr N’s network was formed by men he had long standing ties to, when a young man looked for his first job (1957 being the age where one got a job and stayed with that company until retirement), he automatically followed his longtime friends (and probably elder men in his geographically close family) to the same factory or trade where they worked. While the strong tie didn’t necessarily pass on information to get the job, it did create an environment where a man wouldn’t have to give much thought to,” what do I want to be when I grow up?”[2]


Bott, Elizabeth. (1955). Urban Families: Conjugal Roles and Social Networks. Human Relations 8:345-83.

Fischer, Claude. (1982). To Dwell Among Friends. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Ch. 1, 7-10]

Kalmijn, M. (2003). Shared Friendship Networks and the Life Course. Social Networks, 25, 231-249.

Klofstad, C., Sokhey, A,. & McClurg S. (in press). Disagreeing About Disagreement: How Conflict in Social Networks Affects Political Behavior. American Journal of Political Science.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375.

Price-Spratlen, T. (2008). Urban Destination Selection among African Americans during the 1950s Great Migration. Social Science History, 32(3), 437-469. doi:10.1215/01455532-2008-005

Sides, J. A. (2000, January). Working Away: African American Migration and Community in Los Angeles from the Great Depression to 1954. Dissertation Abstracts International, 2652.

Wellman, Barry, and Scot Wortley. (1990). Different Strokes from Different Folks: Community Ties and Social Support. American Journal of Sociology 96(3):558-88.

[1] I would identify this paper as the one that triggered my intense interest in social network ties. I found his basic theory an elegant way of explaining the different role played by the connections we have with the various people in our lives. I think so much of what has been written since then is a refinement or criticism of this initial work. I want to add to this by exploring how it is situated within the age of Computer Mediated Communication age, including email, message boards, blogs, and any other format that facilitates online communities.

[2] I see so much of my parents’ neighborhood experiences in the story of the N family.

My mother grew up in a small town where her family had lived for many generations. Her grandfather ran the produce store and the town’s only taxi. They were working class people and my mother’s generation almost all grew up and lived their lives within a few miles of their home town. As a child I don’t think we ever had to drive more than 15 minutes in any direction to get to almost any family member’s home. The story of the tightly interwoven social network where people depended on family (because in this community almost everyone was related, however distantly) to each other was their story. Gender roles were proscribed and this is no more evident than in my grandmother’s advice to her daughters to, “marry a man who has a pension”. There was no thought that the women would have a job of any significance, it was up to the man to provide for the family from marriage until his death (because it was always assumed that they man would die first) and having a pension to supplement Social Security was one of the important ways of doing it.

My father’s family was part of the Second Great Migration of Blacks (roughly 1940 into the late 60s) when people moved out of the primarily still agrarian South to the Western states which were where the industry (especially for the aerospace industry) was booming. They relocated from New Orleans to the Bay Area of California in 1950 and my aunt tells the story of being a little girl and coming over the bridge for the first time (unfortunately, I’m not sure which bridge).  It was a structure far bigger than anything she had ever seen; something awesome. However, within this vast metropolis, the working class families that moved west, instead of adopting the behavior of the upwardly mobile families in Bott, moved into neighborhoods where people they already knew from their neighborhoods back home already lived. Often the move was prompted by a letter that said, “There are plenty of good paying jobs and I know where you can find a place to live. My aunt says that each street or two was peopled by people who knew each other from , “back home”.  In recreating the neighborhood, the roles and behaviors of the community were reinforced, as opposed to weaked, by the move.

By contrast, my generation of the family, (with my sister and I being the youngest of the group) is populated with people who, even if they live in a more wirking class environment, have a more egalitarian division of labor. We are better traveled and more open to different ideas and ways of comporting our families.  (And on a non-academic note, every time I use that moniker, I realize that Bott had *no* idea of the significance referring to people by the initial “N” would have today).

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Is Facebook Doomed? is the kind of article that irks me.

It quotes a financial analyst named Eric Jackson who said, “In five to eight years they  [Facebook] are going to disappear in the way that Yahoo has disappered [sic]”. Anyone who makes the  grand pronouncement that by 2020 FB will have gone the way of Yahoo is stating the obvious. Of course it will and the most junior of students of social media can tell you that.

It’s what Nicole Ellison and danah boyd told us back in 2008. In their article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”, the “History” part tells the story of social networking sites (SNS). From 6 Degrees to Friendster to MySpace to Facebook, all of these sites grow, dominate their landscape for a few years (except for 6 Degrees which *created* the landscape the subsequent SNS inhabited), and then sharply contract as their users migrate elsewhere. However, they don’t disappear; instead, after a period of dormancy and realignment, they reinvent themselves. Friendster did it, MySpace has done it and there were rumors a few years ago that 6 Degrees was trying to reboot itself (but the new “invite only” iteration seems to have sunk beneath the waves).[1]

It has been 6 years since Facebook opened up to the general public. It’s already been at the top of the SNS game twice as long as MySpace was. All social media sites have a lifespan, they end up declining either because they don’t have a critical mass of users to support they become so big that they implode as new users flock to the next big thing.

Facebook benefited from 2 things that I think gave them a longer lifespan than their predecessors. First, it had a built in population of users by the time in opened to the general public in 2006. By coincidence or design (and probably a bit of both) the progression of their rollout populations was very smart. By the time they opened up to the general public, young people from about 14 to 25 were already acquainted and comfortable with the brand and usage expanded up and down from there. Its ascendency also coincided with the dramatic uptick in the adoption of mobile technology. This meant that you could carry your entire social network in your pocket (well, at least the people that were also on Facebook).

TPTB[2] might revoke my “Like” button, but I’m predicting that the innovation that supersedes Facebook will be here within the next 3-5 years.

I don’t know exactly what it will be but it will come from an industry outsider (Sorry Google but I’m channeling Granovetter here, innovation comes into a network from without and you’re too strongly tied to the rest of big tech, you are an insider).  I also predict that when it happens the remaining users will not be young people, but people 30 and older. This is because their weakest connections are the more sentimental ones from their past and Facebook facilitates a high level of ease in maintaining those ties. I predict that older users will be less likely to move to a different platform when so much of their history, people as well as artifacts, is already embedded within the site.

Finally, I think that whatever succeeds Facebook will have a highly customizable user interface but a very stable base. Right now, Facebook seems to tweak a notable feature every 6-12 months, it changes the layout and the usual outcome is the people complain for a while until they become acclimated. I’m predicting that the successive technology will have a user interface that is modular (you can swap elements in and out as you desire), but the basic screen will remain fairly consistent. This will enable the site to add new modules for users to plug into their personal interface if they so choose. The process of changing up the interface will be WYSIWYG[3].

Aaaand I think I just described a smartphone, lol.


boyd, d. m., Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), Article 11.

Dimmel, Brandon. (2012) Is Facebook doomed: analyst predicts site irrelevant by 2020.  http://www.manolith.com/2012/06/05/is-facebook-doomed-analyst-predicts-site-irrelevant-by-2020/ Retrieved September 23, 2012.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.

[1] The stated goal of 6 Degrees was to connect with Friends of Friends (of friends of friends and so on up to 6 nodes away) for informational and/or recreational purposes. They even showed you a diagram that would look very familiar to social network analysts where you were the central node, people you knew were connected to you by a line and were at the center of their own network systems.

I found the idea of 6 Degrees making a return tantalizing though because that was the first SNS that I used. While anyone looking at the interface would recognize it as an SNS the way we are used to today, its downfall is that there just weren’t enough Internet users who used the site to sustain it.

Only about 23%of US adults had Internet access in 1996, the year 6 Degrees rolled out. Internet users were still relatively elite group technologically, socio-economically, as well as by race and gender. (Suffice to say, my sister and I were oddities in the online world.) First, they had the financial resources to purchase a computer that would have been fast enough get you on and around the Internet in the first place. Then you needed a modem (which was generally purchased separately from your computer) and the money to pay the monthly Internet access charges. They also needed the technical know-how to set up their modem (do they even still have those master and slave switches inside a computer anymore, lol).

I also wonder if a large portion of people who might have used 6 Degrees were already networking through sites like Usenet, Prodigy and local online communities like The Well.

[2] The Powers That Be

[3] What You See Is What You Get

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In high school I remember being taught that some of the hallmarks of science are that it systematic and employed logic and rationality to organize ideas and concepts that can be tested and compared against each other. This week’s readings demonstrated that by its introduction not only the mechanics of social network analysis (SNA) but how it challenges the schools of thought about community and how it is applied in our day to day lives (albeit through a humorous lens as in Freeman, 2000).

The Borgatti, Mehra, Brass, & Labianca article sets the tone when it pegs SNA to one of the questions at the heart of social sciences like Sociology, Anthropology and Communications: how do autonomous individuals combine to create enduring, functioning societies? (Borgatti, et.al., 2009, p. 892). Wellman explains that as a tool, SNA provides scholars a way to measure aspects of social networks such as interrelationships among a given group, the roles individuals (or organizations if that is what’s being studied) play within the network (Wellman, 1999). Who are the central points who control the flow of information between members of the group: who connects the group to other groups and who is connected by a single tie? Monge and Contractor delve into this deeply by listing various key social network measures identified by Daniel Brass, 30 measures covering the measure of individual actors, network ties and the whole network itself (2003, pp.3-5).

That this is scientific is shown in part in that these measures can be extended by measuring the same group over time or by looking at similar or dissimilar groups to assess how widespread behaviors, actions and attitudes are among similar or dissimilar groups. An example of this is Grannovetter’s comparison of neighborhood reaction in Boston to the dismantling of a neighborhood. The network analysis showed that dense networks with few or no external ties were less successful then neighborhoods that had weak ties to others who had access to different information and resources. As described by Borgatti, et.al, social networks look at the person or group at the center of the network situated within its native context as opposed to an isolated entity, an actor without the influence of those tightly and loosely attached to them.

To get personal, I am a big fan of movies from the 20s through the mid 50s and Marin and Wellman’s example of the “Kevin Bacon Effect” is a perfect example of the influence social networks can have on the individual (2012). Dramatic movies made prior to 1951’s Streetcar Names Desire (think of Mildred Pierce), can seem affected and melodramatic to modern movie goers. This is because most of us are used to actors demonstrating emotions as you see them in everyday life. This is a direct result of Marlon Brando having studied acting with Lee Strasberg who trained many actors that we associate with that more naturalistic form of acting. His network of students went on to act, direct and teach other. This network exerted influence on all of the artists within in it (as well as, it can be argued, the mega network of American moviegoers).

Wellman brings this all together in “The Network Community” (1999). I was particularly interested in this reading because he articulates a couple of key ideas that I have always believed on a heuristic level and addressed in a couple of papers that I’ve written:

  • The “Good Old Days” probably didn’t exist like you think it did. Tönnies concept of Gemeinschafte is based on a whimsical idea of “the good old days”. While Sociology foundational scholars such as Weber and Simmel saw some benefit to the industrialized way of life, they were also concerned that the urbanized life was eroding community and the strong ties that went with them. Reinforcing the idea of SNA as a powerful tool for social scientists, Wellman pointed out that study of groups disparate as early 20th century American immigrants, Eastern European medieval villages and the early 19th century milieu of the English upper classes, evidenced regular movement over wide cultural and geographical distances  often tied to work and marriage(1999, pp. 12-13). This brings us back to Granovetter and the function of weak versus strong ties. Wellman cites the fact that the adults in a 19th century village had small kith and kin networks, the strong ties that provide emotional (and usually other significant types of ) support. However, soldiers, newlyweds, and religious (monks, priests and nuns), brought information, new ideas and innovations to sometimes far flung locations. A historical example Wellman doesn’t site is the Protestant Reformation. Doctrinal conflict with the  Church of Rome began with Wycliffe in the 14th century. Took root in the early 16th century by Martin Luther, spread westward across Northern Europe, finally reaching England by the end of the 16th century. Those ideas were not carried by close knit communities (which would have reinforced community religious ideologies) but by individuals passing literature and information to other social networks through weak ties.
  • Community is an evolutionary process. While there was more fluidity in social networks then some thinkers would have you believe, there were obvious limitations. Whereas it took The Reformation the better part of a decade to change the religious life of Northern Europe, cultural messages as whimsical as LOLcats and serious as political uprisings can be transmitted internationally in a matter of minutes. Modern technology allows a relatively unskilled individual to record a video and post it online for public consumption in minutes. I liked Wellman’s statement that social networks are about the people, not the location. Changes such as the suburbanization of the west, the temporal compression of communication and travel, and the ability to connect with strangers over common interests online; have changed the way our social networks are configured. In the case of online communities, a person can have weak ties that they have never met face to face, something that would have been rare as recently as 20 years ago. While I bristled at his linking of gender to the idea of network types, I understand the imagery. The home (and by extension, the marketplace and church) was generally a woman’s domain and men generally had public spaces for example, the workplace, many bars, and public commuter spaces like trains. Community has not decayed first it transitioned from the agrarian society as people moved into urban centers, then the Jet Age changed it again as people moved to the suburbs. Today we are living through another change as portions of our communication and relationships move online.


  • Borgatti, S. P., Mehra, A., Brass, D. J., & Labianca, G. (2009). Network Analysis in the Social Sciences. Science, 323(5916), 892-895
  • Marin, Alexandra, and Barry Wellman (2010). Social Network Analysis: An Introduction. Pp. 11-25 in Handbook of Social Network Analysis, edited by Peter Carrington and John Scott: Sage.
  • Monge, Peter and Noshir Contractor. (2003). Theories of Communication Networks. Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp 29-45).
  • Wellman, Barry. (1999). The Network Community: An Introduction. Pp. 1-48 in Networks in the Global Village, edited by Barry Wellman. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Freeman, L. C. (2000). See you in the Funny Papers: Cartoons and Social Networks. Connections, 23(1), 32-42.

(This post is the first in a series of blog posts adapted from a class blog I will be posting to during the Fall, 2012 semester)

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I am taking a course on Social Networking Analysis this semester. Part of the class involves writing a weekly blog post discussing our readings. As I did with my Mediated Communications class blog from last semester, I will be posting my blog posts and list of references here as well.

Since the posts for the class are limited to about 750 words, I generally have to edit out ideas to meet that constraint, however, I will be posting my entire post here. This will allow be to share my full thoughts with you as well as record them for myself for future reference.

I hope you find this topic as interesting as I do and, as always, please feel free to add your comments and questions.

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