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That is an extremely intriguing question, Joshua. In fact, I think that the
"experienced participant" does "intuit", for lack of a better word, a
substantial part of what SNA does.
You remember "A Beautiful Mind", where the patterns just start popping out
at him on the chalkboard? I have much the same experience when I look at a
person's MySpace profile or a typical discussion board. I can just look and
tell you who the thought leaders are, which relationships are stronger vs.
Of course, I imagine that someone who does the formal SNA all the time can
probably do the same -- the formal analysis often just confirms their
But let me tell you a couple of things that I think are part of that process
that aren't part of SNA research (to the limited degree I'm familiar with
For one, there is very little qualitative analysis of the relationships.
There also seems to be a general recognition that this is a missing aspect.
For example, is the volume of messages between two people, or even the
length of those messages, really a good indicator of relationship strength?
Personal experience tells me otherwise. I communicate less often with my
mother than I do with many of my casual acquaintances, and the messages
aren't (usually) any longer. Yet look at the content of the messages, and
you'll get cues that quantitative analysis won't give you.
Now, part of that can be done as an "independent" observer, if you have
access to the data. But how many people have direct access to MySpace's
data, for example? So if you want to collect that data yourself, you have to
be a participant -- to observe people's bulletins, the postings in private
groups, etc. And you can't just show up as a researcher -- try posting a
survey on craigslist or eBay (you can't). Much like Jane Goodall amongst the
apes, even though you may at first be perceived as an outsider, over time,
through authentic participation, you can build trust and the behaviors will
go back to somewhat normal, but you now have access to flows of information
that you couldn't possibly as an outsider.
And once you're an insider, then yes, part of your methodology can include
exchanging information with other participants. They'll be willing to tell
you things that they might not to an outsider. Actually, it's not so much
that they might be secretive -- it's just that without you being a
participant yourself, the relationship may not be strong enough to cross the
action threshold for them to spend the time.
> As a side note, one thing that the "number-crunching" approach can get
> you is that it can identify large-scale phenomena (especially diffuse
> phenomena) that can be very hard for a single human investigator to
> identify, simply because of the amount of information involved.
No doubt. And that's why it's particularly valuable at a strategic level.
But I'm skeptical -- and I think many businesspeople are -- about its
ability to quickly determine the best tactics for whatever it is you're
trying to accomplish within the network. As a business decision-maker, I
would generally want the most available input I could get. But the reality
is that business operates under constraints of time and budget. And
sometimes, the speed of the decision is as important as the accuracy -- an
80% answer today is better than a 99% answer next week.
Hence the fundamental difference in perspective between the scientist and
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