Friday, February 23, 2007

Social Networks - the twenty-first century science?


Duncan Watts suggests (Nature 445, 489; 1 February 2007) that "If handled appropriately, data about Internet-based communication and interactivity could revolutionize our understanding of collective human behaviour."

The social sciences "have been much less successful than the physical and life sciences in producing a coherent theoretical framework that can account for their discoveries. This is not because social scientists are less clever than their peers in other fields, but because social phenomena are among the hardest scientific problems to solve."

"For the past 50 years or so, sociologists have thought deeply about the importance of interactions between people, institutions and markets in determining collective social behaviour. They have even built a language — network analysis — to describe these interactions in quantitative terms. But the objects of analysis, such as friendship ties, are hard to observe, especially for large numbers of people over extended periods of time. As a result, network data have historically comprised one-time snapshots, often for quite small groups. And most studies have relied on self-reports from participants, which suffer from cognitive biases, errors of perception and framing ambiguities."

"The striking proliferation over the past decade of Internet-based communication and interactivity, however, is beginning to lift these constraints. For the first time, we can begin to observe the real-time interactions of millions of people at a resolution that is sensitive to effects at the level of the individual. Meanwhile, ever-faster computers permit us to simulate large networks of social interactions. The result has been tremendous interest in social networks: thousands of papers and a growing number of books have been published in less than a decade, leading some to herald the arrival of a 'science of networks'."

1 comment:

  1. Duncan Watts is always a good inspiration in ‘network affairs’ although I must say I am puzzled by the hype created by the Harvard Business Review ‘breakthrough’ of Duncan Watts apparent discovery that spread of ideas require lots of people with ‘low threshold’ receptiveness to influence - a supposed contradiction tot the presence or need for ‘influencers’. I myself prefer the framework provided by Albert-László Barabási (http://www.nd.edu/~alb/) who in places such as the book “Linked” offers a broader perspective of networks. I have used this approach in my work on organizational change described in my book ‘Viral Change: the alternative to slow, painful and unsuccessful management of change in organizations’ (a short audiovisual can be watched in our website www.thechalfontproject.com) For me real change is viral. It requires a small set of non negotiable behaviours, spread first by a small number of individuals (activists, influencers, champions) creating tipping points via imitation and diffusion and infecting the rest of the organization. Different thresholds are ‘needed’ a different points. It is all-in-one. HBR implication that the real influence has less to do with ‘influencers’ than we think is misleading – But the issue of both (a) internet and (b) computing capacity being able to transform our ideas on behaviours is unquestionable. We still need to put many things together … since we o don’t have an “unified theory” of networks yet. But we are getting closer….!Leandro Herrero

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