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October 16, 2006

The Tyranny of Nodes:


Towards a Critique of Social Network Theories

The Tyranny of Nodes: Towards a Critique of Social Network Theories by Ulises Ali Mejias :: Networks have become a powerful metaphor to explain the social realities of our times. Everywhere we look there are attempts to explain all kinds of social formations in terms of networks: citizen networks, corporate networks, gamer networks, terrorist networks, learning networks... and so on. Information and communication technologies—in particular the internet—and the structures they enable have greatly influenced how we imagine the social. It's similar to what happened in cognitive science when the computer was taken as the favored metaphor for explaining how the brain works, except that now we are attempting to explain how the social works.

But is there something anti-social about imagining and organizing our social realities in terms of networks?

Most critiques of the rise of the network as a model for organizing social realities focus on what it has replaced: tightly-woven, location-specific communities (a community itself can be defined as a particular kind of network, but for the moment let's stick to these conventional terms). Wellman (2002) traces how social formations have developed from densely-knit traditional communities to sparsely-knit but still location-specific “Glocalized” networks (think cities connected to other cities), to networks unbound to any specific physical space, or what he calls Networked Individualism, where "people remain connected, but as individuals rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household." (p. 5)

Thus, an important characteristic of Networked Individualism is the overcoming of physical space. Today's networks connect individuals regardless of the distance between them. This has led various authors to announce—some with glee and some with regret —the Death of Distance. But more than its elimination, Networked Individualism promotes the reconfiguration of distance: it is not only our relatonship to the far that is changed, but also our relationship to the near. Of course, early on critics sensed a threat to the near in this reconfiguration, and saw in Networked Individualism the destruction of communal location-specific forms of sociality (i.e., the irrelevancy of the near). However, this has not proven to be necessarily the case, as Network Individualism can play a part in (re)connecting people to the local. The network then also becomes a model for "reapproaching nearness" (Mejias, 2005), with the added benefit that nearness now encompasses new forms of global awareness. [continue reading at I D E A N T]

Posted by jo at October 16, 2006 11:17 AM