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Sunday, April 16, 2006

response to Morville's "Social Network Analysis"


In all fairness, Peter Morville does have a lot of things right. Humans are, by nature, social animals as he recognizes in his article "Social Network Analysis". I also agree SNA tools and metrics can be used to effectively analyze computer networks and information systems. What I don't agree with is his assertion they can be applied at the level of individuals and organizations/industries (by extension).

Take Morville's diagram pictured above. What he fails to consider are the myriad external factors that characterize human relationships. For example, Claudia holds a powerful position as "boundary spanner" between the two groups...but what if external factors don't allow that sort of fluidity to happen? What if Claudia has a thing for Steven (who is really kind of a dumbass)? He likes Sarah, who also has a connection to Claudia. Claudia's advances are turned down by Steven, and she finds out Sarah is the object of his affection. Now both potential channels are severed. Claudia now has no direct connection to the rest of the people on the left side of Morville's metaphorical office network. The network has obviously not been altered in a positive way because people are not robots! Morville has dramatically oversimplified the concept of the network as it relates to human beings. Sure, you can apply his discussion to computer systems...because they're computers, they don't selectively interact with or ignore other computers on the same network unless specifically programmed to do so.

At the end of the article, Morville states "these concepts are critical to the creation of truly useful knowledge economies and online communities". He cites AOL's Buddy Lists as one "seed of innovation around us". I find that to be an amusingly terrible example. He seems to forget that on a Buddy List, I can choose to block or ignore certain individuals. Other text-based messaging systems, which he seems so fond of throughout the article, have elevated the simple act of avoiding someone into a fine art. Yahoo has a "stealth" setting, which allows you to view another person's status on the network, but remain hidden to them. Various companies have come up with tools and add-ons to text-based messengers that essentially override stealth settings, so you can out-stealth the people on your buddy list.

At the end of the day, it seems as if subverting the hierarchial order of a network is more fun than actually being a part of one. Morville ends the article by saying "Humans are social animals. It's about time more of us started recognizing this in the systems we design." But the desire to put a kink in the systems we design is as much a part of human nature as creating networks of socialization. Bigger, better, and faster....the relentless pursuit of an all-encompassing, efficient design means, instead of "there goes the old neighborhood", there goes the old network.

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