Social Networks

25 January 2010


Social Networks did not emerge with Web 2.0; social networks are as old as social species, which is to say that social networks are far older than our species. What do I mean by this? In Argentina at Loma del Pterodaustro there is a remarkable paleontological find of a rookery of pterosaurs, that is to say, there is paleontological evidence that pterosaurs lived closely together in rookeries as many seabirds do today. This, of course, makes sense as birds are the surviving descendants of dinosaurs.

All social species develop conventions for living together at close quarters.

Darwin argued that any species in which the individuals live in crowded conditions with others of the same species (as in a rookery) will eventually and inevitably develop social conventions for living together in such close circumstances. I believe this to be correct, and when I watch large groups of social animals I see it confirmed in my own experience. For example, I have watched large groups of sea lions on the Oregon coast on many occasions. Like seabirds on a rookery, sea lions often congregate together in large numbers in rocks just offshore, and in this way are easy to observe.

An idealized representation of a social network.

When people speak of social networks today, they mean those social networks that have recently been enabled in the internet: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, and countless others. The popular press discusses social networks ad nauseum because young people are fascinated by them (young consumers are a desirable demographic) and the business press discusses social networks because young consumers are fascinated by them and young consumers are a desirable demographic. I learned about Twitter from an article in the Financial Times, of all places.

Before we solemnly proclaim the revolutionary character of contemporary internet-enabled social contracts, we ought to think a little about the history of social networks. Beyond the social networks that are the concern of natural history, such as mentioned above in the first paragraph, the emergence of human societies is identical to the emergence of social networks. The social networks of the earliest settled civilizations of the neolithic agricultural revolution would have emerged from the social networks of the hunter-gatherer bands and preceded them, as the social networks of hunter-gatherer bands would have emerged gradually and continuously from the social networks of natural history that in turn preceded them.

In social networks during the historical period proper we can see the continuing emergence and evolution of such networks, always dependent upon what came before while adopting and adapting old social networks to new social contexts arising from unprecedented historical change. This continues in our own time, such that internet-enabled social networks must be understood not as revolutionary new developments but as the continuation of a process as old as mankind, and, in fact, older. Each development is a continuation, but always with a new twist.

In the absence of the formal social networks such as the feudal aristocracy of medieval Europe, or even the semi-formal client-patron networks of classical antiquity, in contemporary industrialized nation-states social relationships are organized through informal social networks. In other words, as it has been put in a familiar saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. (Or, in some cases, it’s not what you do, but who you do.) But such seemingly informal social networks emerging from mere friendships are not so innocuous as they may seem: who one knows is almost always a function of one’s socio-economic status. Of course there are individuals who cross socio-economic class lines, and there is a certain amount of social mobility, but these are the exceptions, and we notice them precisely because they are exceptions. The rule remains the rule.

For those who have no advantageous friendships, no friends in high places, and no social connections to well-placed individuals who can make things happen, there emerges the need to be liked. One makes (or attempts to make) oneself likable in order to get things done. One must be liked by the right people. (And, on the right sort of people, consider the devastating critique of such people and such aspirations in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.) In some cases, perhaps in many cases, this is a dismal state of affairs, scarcely better than the flattery and sycophancy of aristocratic court culture and the formal social networks of feudalism. Indeed, I would argue that both forms of culture are species of the same genus.

I would argue that the formalization of informal networks is one mark of the maturation of a civilization. I do not say that it is good, or even that it is better than the social networks of barbarism; I say only that mature civilizations tend to formally define a greater number of aspects of life the longer such civilizations last, and among these aspects of life we must include social networks. With this in mind, we can define at least one sense in which medieval Europe constitutes continuous progress beyond the achievements of classical antiquity (whereas in most senses medieval civilization is viewed as less sophisticated than, as representing a devolution from, classical antiquity): the medieval feudal system is a far more formal, detailed, defined, and evolved social network than any that existed in the ancient world.

Internet-enabled social networks constitute a new formalization of informal social networks, and many unprecedented institutions are emerging from the intrinsic structures of this new public forum. Social networks, especially when laid out in the formal terms of internet-enabled social networks, are a concrete expression of social capital, a buzz word that has made it from academic sociology to the popular press. The greater one’s social network, the greater one’s social capital (an equivalence principle for sociology, as it were). Today, in virtue of internet-enabled social networks, we might even be able to quantify social capital of an individual or an institution. This represents a new level of the formalization of informal social networks, perhaps even a new order of magnitude, such that internet-enabled social networks actually could be called revolutionary in comparison to what came before them.

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