considering the goals of social network modeling

[From OM]

At CSCW, one attendee asked me what made Friendster a social network? He was frustrated because the term social network did not simply refer to a group of people who could be modeled in a graph-like structure, yet that is how it is being used these days. I have to wonder if the anthropologists are giggling since their term for the same behavior has not been co-opted.

Both sociologists and anthropologists have tried to understand and model social relationships since the beginning of their fields. They want to know how these relationships are connected with practices, culture, organizations, etc. They want to know how these relationships affect how people interact with one another. Whenever they try to model these relationships, their goal is not simply to build a graph, but to construct a visual representation that will allow them to better understand people, society and culture. The end goal is not the graph and the graph is not meant for the people being studied.

Conversely, consider what all of the social networking sites have attempted to do. The goal in constructing the relationship structures is certainly not for a researcher to make sense of society and culture, but for those represented to be empowered by the articulation and representation of their relationships. Rather than a researcher attempting to understand and model what s/he susses out about others’ relationships, the represented are doing the modeling. Furthermore, their models are being used by others and this affects the ways in which they model their relationships.

Rather than actually analyzing the practical effects of the differences in these approaches, i’d like to encourage the readers to really reflect on the divergent goals. We often speak about the need for activities once networks are built, but we don’t consider the underlying goals. In many ways, i feel as though the goals are what affects the activities, not vice versa.

The goals of sociological networks are very clear, but what are the goals of people-generated networks for public consumption? What are the goals of the designers vs. the goals of the people producing these representations? Is one motivation to empower people to find new ways to relate? Is the goal to have a more efficient way of spreading memes? Is the goal to make people reflect on their relationships? What are the goals?

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