Friday, November 26, 2010


So here it is, Thanksgiving weekend, and everyone's thoughts are turned to friends and family, and the connections that make up the community of which we are each a part.

I suppose, to most people it's funny that I reduce such transcendent ideals as "family" and "community" down to their most simplistic technological analog, but it's only natural to me, spending as much time as I do thinking about networks. 

I spend so much of my time thinking of the network radiating outward from me, that it's sometimes too easy to forget that there are other type of networks that are fundamental to who and what I am. Less than a decade after the inception of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee wrote in "Weaving the Web,"
"In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related.

There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. there are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected."
In this instance, Berners-Lee extrapolates lessons on computer networks from cellular level interactions, but I think that his wisdom applies just as readily on scales in the opposite direction. Connections, whether at a cellular, syntactical, or interpersonal define who we are. And there's nothing like a family reunion to remind you of that.

James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis take on the topic of human social networks with the “Rules of Life in the Network” at the beginning of their excellent book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

1.) We shape our network: We choose who we will have in our network and even the structure of the network.

2.) Our network shapes us: Not just who we know, but the friends of friends and the whole shape of our overall network (which we usually can’t see) affects us in all sorts of ways, from careers, to relationships and even our health.

3.) Our friends affect us: We are directly affected by the behaviours of those close to us in our network.

4.) Our friends’ friends’ friends’ affect us: People we don’t even know in our network affect us.

5.) The network has a life of its own: When you look at human social networks from a distance, we look like an ant colony does to us. Somehow, despite our individualism, our networks do things, things emerge that are nothing to do with an individual “influencer”, leader or whatever. Christakis and Fowler call our social networks a “human superorganism.”

Read an excellent interview with Nicholas Christakis, "Does This Social Network Make Me Look Fat?," at Wired.

No comments:

Post a Comment