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Social networks – not new but different

January 11th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

An interesting post by Tim Kasteele on Networks and the Information Glut. Tim links to the video above by Dan Edelstein showing the social networks of correspondence among 18th Century scientists:

As Tim says:

“It’s great research that illustrates some important points:

  • When we talk about ’social networks’ we don’t just mean facebook and twitter. People have always functioned within networks, and these have always been important in the development and spread of ideas. James Fowler makes this same point in his interview with Stephen Colbert.
  • Ideas diffuse through networks. The structure of the networks through which we are trying to get our ideas to spread has a significant influence on the diffusion of our innovations. Our connections within the network can enhance or hinder our ability to get our ideas to spread. One of the reasons that Darwin gets credited with the idea of evolution through natural selection instead of Alfred Russell Wallace is that Darwin’s connections within the scientific community at the time were more numerous, more widespread, and better.
  • Even though we often feel like we’re overwhelmed with information and data to be absorbed, the information glut is nothing new. Think about the volume of connections shown in the video. Or think about Charles Darwin – over the course of scientific career he sent over 15,000 letters. It’s safe to assume that he received just as many. Think about how much time he would have spent reading & writing letters, and how much new information and ideas would have been included in that – it’s probably more than we’re spending writing our blogs, updating our statuses and twittering. In fact, if you just look at the networks, you might argue that Darwin was the Chris Brogan of the 19th Century.”

Of course Tim is right in saying that social networks are not new. But it may be worth considering what has changed through the spread of social software powered networks.

One change is speed. I do not know how fast the post was in the 19th Century (probably no slower than today 🙂 ) but today’s communication is almost instant. When I have finished this post I will press the publish button and the article is in the open. I wonder though if the speed of communication is leading to less reflection on what we are writing.

There are changes in power relations. Notwithstanding Facebook’s claim to own our data and to control our privacy, today we can all publish our ideas, rather than in the past when publishing was limited to those with money or to selected researchers and writers.

Moreover Twitter, blogs and wikis have opened up access to ideas. Perhaps more important than access to scholarly writing such as papers is access to discourses as they happen.

Of course, the use of new media raises the question of form and content. I can very much imagine that Darwin would have loved to have a wiki for his research. I can imagine him blogging from his iPhone in the Guadaloupe Islands. Twitter could have been useful for sending messages back home but I am not so sure it has the same affordances as a letter. Mind, Jo says Darwin might have Twittered “Got new theory, check out my new blog on it”. I am not so sure.

One question which would be very interesting to see is the patterns and interaction between social networks. My guess is that today we have denser patterns of overlapping networks – though I may be wrong.

And one of the most interesting things about today’s forms of social networks is the straying between discipline areas. Whilst I guess 19th century networks tended to be organised in fairly strict disciplinary or subject groups, today’s networks tend to wander across different subject areas and domains. It seems Time Kasteele is in the French department at Stanford. And when his video came to an end up came the video on Welsh and the importance of minority languages which we are currently featuring featuring on the front page of this site.

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3 Responses to “Social networks – not new but different”

  1. Tim Kastelle says:

    Thanks for the mention! Interestingly, the post was actually significantly faster in the 19th century, at least within cities. Most homes had pickup and delivery 3 or 4 times per day, so it was not unusual to send a letter in the morning post and to receive a reply the same afternoon. Nevertheless, your general point about speed is well taken.

    I think your question about the density of our networks is a very interesting one. I’m not sure what the answer is – it would make a great research project! I also wonder about how the intensity of ties might be different too.

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