In a previous post, I argued for why it is important to look at the quality of the transactions that lead to the forces of preferential attachment and hence scale free networks. In this post I want to look at the opposite, that is what you can say about the human quality of a social network, by considering it’s form. This should I believe be an entire research discipline, one I’m actively looking for, but not yet found.
Let’s call this discipline: social anatomy, or network aesthetics, or some such snappy title. Whatever we call it, it would be the study of emergent values, of network topologies. There would be a body of longitudinal studies, in which different topologies were compared, randomly allocated to different groups and the quality of the emergent behaviour at an individual and social level compared. Studies would take place within the same domain, comparing different topologies, and then compared across domains to see if general lessons could be learned regarding the role such topologies have on abstract qualities, such as creativity, or empathy, or aggression for instance.
This research would have a practical focus. It would help us design online communities, social media tools, social institutions and legal frameworks. But to keep things simple, let’s take a look at social media, and (for the purpose of illustration), the media reporting of the current Libyan protests. @techsoc relates:
- Traditional media puts things in a sterile, manageable place. Here are dead children. A crush of people. Btw, don’t you want a bigger car?
- Even when they tell you, they tell you in a way that distances you. The anchor & the correspondent are distant, so you remain distant.
- On the other hand, there are billions of people & many tragedies. Not possible to live w/ it all, all the time. No answers, just reflecting.
Is this not an emergent property, of the topologies of the two network structures – television and twitter? What substance can we give to the observation that the professional behaviour encouraged by hierarchical institutions tends towards the well – bland, and the cold? What sort of structures could preserve a wider range of qualities within the diversity of reporting?
It is also surely the case that the potential of social networks does not stop with the direct reporting of individual incidents in all their emotive intensity. We have a network, and are beginning to see social editorial structures emerge, both technical, and cultural. It is certainly possible to imagine, and indeed occasionally experience mediated representations of events that combine the two – direct and emotionally intense on the ground accounts, with objective, impartial or statistical analysis.
Networks can serve to address some of the shortcomings of professional reporting, by giving a richer structure and typology to the objective representations, while retaining the immediate presence of direct visceral experience. This can be technically mediated by showing an image, or raw video footage, but is also socially mediated by the fact of knowing that the reporter is not professional, is not being paid, but is perhaps being motivated directly and simply by the need or impulse to tell a story.
Tweets are based on a format designed by engineers to exchange technical data over a cellphone network – their social and emotive impact comes not from the format, as much as from the topology of the communications network. Tweets are able to capture the emotional context of news stories, in a way in which a television news studio and network of reporters is unable to. A community and culture of reporting can then grow around this network. Is it not the case that we may be able to look at the topology of such networks and map classes of these topologies to a range of social qualities.
It would seem to me that there are a number of qualities; authenticity, empathy, humour fairness to take a few, that appear to suffer in any conventional process of institutionalisation. It is no coincidence that the social sciences, lack good theoretical frameworks to understand these qualities, and that research in these areas is poorly funded. Nor is it a coincidence that these areas are of genuine human importance. The important things are hard, and we have not had ethically viable research tools to investigate these core qualities of human society.
Fairness may be related to an appropriate use of reputation in a network, but studies like this are only just scratching the surface. We need longitudinal studies, in order to move an academic discipline towards a real science of social institutions in a networked world, not one stuck in an analysis of historical structures, but an experimental science that enables us to look at appropriate designs for qualities that we seek, not simple side effects of historical happen-stance.
In medicine we have a range of instruments that allow us to look at the structure of the human body, and detect signs of structural disease, or signs of healing and good health. When will we have these for the social structures of our institutions?