Reticulous ramblings! We can’t see the network for the nodes…

Reading my colleague Alisa Hansen‘s post about the head-spinning theories of the Synaptic Web and the Pragmatic Web, I was reminded again of this passage from Tim Berners-Lee’s Weaving the Web, which he wrote in 1999, less than a decade after the web came into being:

In an extreme view, the world can be seen as only connections, nothing else. We think of a dictionary as the repository of meaning, but it defines words only in terms of other words. I liked the idea that a piece of information is really defined only by what it’s related to, and how it’s related.

He continues:

There really is little else to meaning. The structure is everything. there are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.

These thoughts connect – appropriately enough – with the “Rules of Life in the Network” at the beginning of Connected (the book about human social networks, which I really can’t recommend highly enough) by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler:

1. We shape our network: We choose who we will have in our network and even the structure of the network;
2. Our network shapes us: Not just who we know, but the friends of friends and the whole shape of our overall network (which we usually can’t see) affects us in all sorts of ways, from careers, to relationships and even our health;
3. Our friends affect us: We are directly affected by the behaviours of those close to us in our network;
4. Our friends’ friends’ friends’ affect us: People we don’t even know in our network affect us;
And, most incredibly of all: 5. The network has a life of its own: When you look at human social networks from a distance, we look like an ant colony does to us. Somehow, despite our individualism, our networks do things, things emerge that are nothing to do with an individual “influencer”, leader or whatever. Christakis and Fowler call our social networks a “human superorganism”.

All of these things lead me to these thoughts… forgive their sprawling nature, but this is my public notebook, not an essay site…

  • To understand networks in any context we need to get over the idea of just looking for influencers and understand them as sort of entities in their own right (Christakis and Fowler’s superorganisms).
  • Because organisations are culturally atuned to the idea of communicating with individuals, or masses they identify with individual “personas” or demographic “segments” they are constantly looking at the properties (beliefs, choices, behaviours) of individuals they miss the importance of the connections, of how networks of people behave.
  • Our identity is not just what we choose it to be. It is partly defined by our network. This is already the case in the offline world, and will increasingly be the case in the online world.
  • We have a sense that we own our identity, but that’s not entirely true, when you look at it in the context of a network.
  • Rather than saying “manage our reputation” with its connotations of control, it might be more accurate to say “affect our reputation”.