Network data are among those that are changing fastest these days. When I say I study social networks, people almost automatically think of Facebook or Twitter –without necessarily realizing that networks have been around for, well, the whole history of humanity, long before the internet. Networks are just systems of social relationships, and as such, they can exist in any social context — the family, school, workplace, village, church, leisure club, and so forth. Social scientists started mapping and analysing networks as early as the 1930s. But people didn’t think of their social relationships as “networks” and didn’t always see themselves as “networkers” even if they did invest a lot in their relationships, were aware of them, and cared about them. The term, and the systemic configuration, were just not familiar. There was something inherently informal and implicit about social ties.
What has changed with Facebook and its homologues, is that the network metaphor has become explicit. People are now accustomed to talking about “networks”, and think in systemic terms, seeing their own relationships as part of a more global structure. Network ties have become formal — you have to make a clear choice and action when you add a “friend” on Facebook, or “follow” someone on Twitter; you will have a list of your friends/followers/followees (whatever the specific terminology is) and monitor changes in this list. You know who the friends of your friends are, and can keep track of how many people viewed your profile /included you in their “lists” / mentioned you in their Tweets. Now, everyone knows what networks are –so if you are a social network researcher and conduct a survey like in the old days, you won’t fear your respondents may misunderstand. In fact, you may not even need to do a survey at all –the formal nature of online ties, digitally recorded and stored, makes it possible to retrieve your network information automatically. You can just mine network tie data from Facebook, Twitter, or whatever service your target populations happen to be using.
Of course this raises huge ethical problems — granted, you won’t bother your respondents with questions and will save a lot of their time, but you will bypass informed consent. We’ll talk about this at some other time. For now, I’d like to stress that the formal nature of online network ties may hide the fact that networks are still not objects that have an independent existence out there. Just as in the pre-web era, networks are constructed and cultural –what is family, for example, or how close family members are (or perhaps should be…), varies widely across cultures. It may be a stereotype to say that Europeans have a narrower conception of the family than do other cultures, but that’s very much what I have in mind. Formal listing of “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter is no different and cultural norms reign here too –think how awkward or socially unacceptable it is to defriend or unfollow someone. When researchers collect and interpret network data, they need to take into account the myriad nuances and differences in definitions of data that come from different sources, whether these data are taken from online sources or classical surveys.
To discuss these themes in a broad context, I ran yesterday a workshop on “Using mixed methods in social network analysis“, with Alessio D’Angelo and Louise Ryan of the British Sociological Association – Social Network Analysis Study Group. Mixed methods are a good approach as they preserve the basic formalisms of social network analysis while introducing a lot of reflexivity, and giving more space to the dimension of content of networks in addition to structure; so one can think more broadly about the meaning and interpretation of the network and data of interest. We plan further initiatives in this direction, so more will soon come…