Thursday, February 18, 2010

Economist Special report on Social Networks (or not)

I took a moment to cruise the pile of Economist issues we have in our lobby and stumbled across a Special Report on Social Networks. Just like I see in many conversations I have with others about my research on networks and entrepreneurship, people are quick to generalize in this order:
  • networks --> social networks --> online social networks
Let's be clear here. Networks are a form of organizing that are neither market nor hierarchy. In business research, networks are arguably not a theory, but a way of looking at social structures and processes. There are of course also computer networks, neural networks, infrastructure networks, etc, but those are topics for other blogs. "Social networks" imply network structures of social relationships, for which most people assume it's all about friendship networks, or at least homophily (the degree to which any two people are similar, whether or not they actually know each other). "Social networks" stops there. It does not refer to a medium of communication, or even impute that there is a medium of communication, or communication. Technically, social networks may exist simply by virtue of similar attributes. Realistically, there is communication, including verbal (face-to-face, phone, voip, ..), written, visual, etc. This is where the word "online" often gets dropped. No one says "Do a search for 'social network research' online." It is simply assumed that because so much of what we do is via computers and the internet, that there's no need to state whether it's online or offline. To be clear though, when I read a special report from the Economist on "Social Networks" I was hoping to read about more than facebook and twitter. Sure they play a role in our lives, but so do networks in the real-o-sphere:

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