nytimes: social networks

Here’s a fun little NYTimes commentary on the emergence of social networks as a hot topic.

December 14, 2003
Social Networks


Just a few years ago, the network was what people tapped into at parties or business conventions or what they called upon if the market turned sour or they were in desperate need of a job. In the time since, a coterie of ”network thinkers” have begun to extend the language of the network — ”nodes” and ”hubs” and ”links” — to phenomena ranging from the workings of the world economy to the possible spread of a dangerous pathogen. Several network theorists, most notably Albert-Laszlo Barabasi of Notre Dame and Duncan Watts of Columbia, have recently discovered that varieties of systems display a common architecture that governs their dynamics and structure. The way a cluster of neurons fires, for instance, has marked similarities to the way a disease like SARS travels the globe or the way a contagious idea disperses. Apparently, lots of complex networks look like lots of other complex networks (the Internet and the North American power grid, for example). And apparently the idea that everything is connected to everything else no longer seems so far-fetched.

Many software and Web applications now allow us to explore our nearly infinite social connectivity. The most hyped and widely known is Friendster.com, which went online in March and allows users to meet people up to four social degrees away. There is also Tribe.net, which started in late July and focuses less on dating and more on utilizing social networks for professional relationships, as well as Tickle (another dating service) and LinkedIn (another professional contacts service).

All are in hot pursuit of market share — a good indication that treating the human community as a network may be profitable as well as innovative. Tribe’s backers include The Washington Post Company and Knight-Ridder, and Friendster has a number of Silicon Valley’s top venture-capital firms betting on it. Users see dollar signs, too. A new social network software application called Spoke, for example, allows businesses to mine their computer databases so that a company’s sales force might tap into co-workers’ relationships for contacts, thus saving them from the inefficiency of cold calling. Meanwhile, several Democratic contenders, notably Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, have used in-person networking sites like Meetup.com to amass contributions and arrange rallies. At last count, the Dean bloc on Meetup had grown from a small but enthusiastic faction to more than 150,000.

Some of the fledgling social-network companies may indeed mature into powerful business hubs like eBay or Amazon. Yet the more intriguing prospect, from a sociological standpoint, anyway, is whether these applications will actually transform our lives. Ever since the publication of ”Bowling Alone,” we’ve been flooded with even more data about the end of community and lamentations for its return. At least in theory, a readily accessible social network would enable more of us to bond with people we regard as far less anonymous than strangers. The larger possibility, that plugging into our social networks might somehow remedy a profound national loneliness, is even more enticing.

What seems just as likely, however, is that social-network applications will further fracture life into disparate spheres — the online and the offline. Jonathan Abrams (the C.E.O. of Friendster) and Mark Pincus (the C.E.O. of Tribe Networks) see their creations ultimately as a means to enrich offline experiences. But this fact is incontrovertible: technology has outpaced our physical ability to manage the social network. Duncan Watts, author of this year’s book ”Six Degrees,” has wondered whether our primitive ancestry gives us a hard-wired tendency to attend to only our immediate associates, like family and friends. Our online persona may be rich with friends and contacts; it may make us feel popular and deeply valued as we trade tips about the best Australian Shiraz or converse about the best way to get to Burning Man. But our offline persona still gets stuck in traffic on the way to the liquor store. Our online persona may manage a Web-based cocktail party of three degrees — a party that would include our friends, the friends of our friends and the friends of our friends’ friends. But our offline persona, juggling the demands of family and work, can barely return the telephone calls from the first degree.

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