Research: the limits of social networks for organising the social

Ulises Mejias has written a wonderful paper (subscription required) on how social networks don’t just enable participation – but limit them. Or as he asks: “Whether social network services engender publics (where opinion can be expressed freely) or masses (where opinion can be expressed freely but is not realised in action)”.

It’s a fascinating counterpoint to the ‘revolutionary’ rhetoric (think Twitter and the ‘Iran revolution’) that surrounds so much writing on social networks.

If you’re able to get hold of a copy, I recommend reading the paper in full, as there’s far too much of interest to summarise here. But if you can’t, here are some of the points that Mejias makes:

  • Networks have gone from frameworks based on observation to “actualized models that normalize a particular kind of privatized publics” – in other words, they are technical constructs based on observation of physical and virtual behaviour
  • We should make a distinction between corporate and public providers of social networks, just as we do in other fields of media
  • Freedom of action expands but so does corporate determination in restricting that freedom (through implementing functionality and features)
  • The commodification of collaboration (it takes place in the context of advertising, for instance)
  • Diversity of voices is countered by homogenisation of platforms
  • A level playing field is countered by reproduction of social inequalities (which resides in access to certainpositions within the network, not just access to the network)

The central point of his paper, however, concerns how social networks present an obstacle to alternative forms of social organisation – a point he expresses through the concepts of nodocentrism and paranodality.

Nodocentrism is explained thus:

“A network is quite incapable of recognizing things that are not nodes. If something is available in the network, it is perceived as part of reality, but if it is not available it might as well not exist.

“Nodocentrism means that while networks are extremely efficient at establishing links between nodes, they embody a bias against knowledge of – and engagement with – anything that is not a node in the same network. The point is not that nodocentrism in social networks impoverishes social life or devalues the near: nodes behave neither anti-socially (they thrive in linking to other nodes) nor anti-locally (they can link to other nodes in their immediate surrounding just as easily as they can link to remote nodes). The point, rather, is that nodocentrism constructs a social reality in which nodes can only see other nodes.”

Think egocentrism, and you get the idea.

As for paranodality – this is a concept to describe “that which resists being part of the network.

“In the network diagrams we are all familiar with, the outsides of the network and the space between the nodes and links are rendered in perfect emptiness. But this space is not empty. It is inhabited by multitudes that do not conform to the organizing logic of the network.

“Only the paranodal can suggest designs for social constructions that exist beyond the epistemological exclusivity of nodes.”

This is important because, as Rancière argues:

“New forms of political subjectification are always accompanied by a disidentification from society as a whole and the places we occupy within it. The paranodal becomes, to use Rancière’s terminology, the part of those who have no part.”

Mejias is at pains to point out that he is not calling for a rejection of the network as a model for organisation, just a more sophisticated understanding of it:

“Balancing the benefits and disadvantages of nodocentrism (suggesting virtual possibilities, but also immobilizing them as soon as they are actualized) will thus require a new form of network ‘literacy’ that incorporates the concept of paranodality. By far, the greatest obstacle today to the emergence of this critical literacy is the unquestioning embrace of networks as tools for change (an embrace that can get us to overlook, for instance, how social network services contribute to the formation of masses, not publics). The network is currently seen as an effective model (if not the only alternative) for organizing political opposition […] But perhaps we have taken too literally Hardt and Negri’s declaration that ‘It takes a network to fight a network’ (2004: 58). Can the kinds of knowledge and ethics necessary to resist nodocentrism emerge from the same network logic? Is the goal simply to design a ‘better’ network? Or do we need to unthink network logic altogether?”

More thinking required.

6 thoughts on “Research: the limits of social networks for organising the social

  1. Peter Demain

    Out of sheer curiosity Paul…who actually reads these papers other than academics and students?

    To me journalism doesn’t need abstract buzzspeak packed analysis; most quality journos would learn far more and have far more fun reading Mencken and Orwell’s accessible, conversational essays on all manner of things. Less is more; simplicity is the key; it’s closer to being a labouring artist than a mathematician or doctor or other intellectually tangible profession. Anyone would think the ivory tower types who write this radge are just angling for influence and future job advancement! Or are simply divorced from the reality of the average journo’s mentality/reading habits.

    Given the bewildering amount of diversification in academia that leads naturally to spurious tripe this is probably credible in comparison to what papers would be like in the other subjects. Imagine a big long analytical write up for Travel and Tourism or Parapsychology. All in acadaspeak that might as well be a Caesar cypher to those surrounding the trade.

    ‘Nodes’? ‘Paranodal?’ ‘Nodocentrism’? Ever seen Nathan Barley on C4? Chris Morris made that terminology humorous in his satire of ‘new media’ types who have high walls of jargon and ego between themselves and reality. How right he was to do that.

    Not to mention requiring a subscription; I mean what planet are these conceitedly aloof sods on anyway?

    -Pete @ dirtygarnet.com

    Reply
    1. Paul Bradshaw

      No one other than academics and students reads them. That’s a shame, because it’s challenging an assumption held by many people. I’m blogging about it – and trying to put it into plainer language – to try to address that.
      As for requiring a subscription, well that’s no fault of the author (so the accusation of being “aloof” is unfounded) but of the academic publisher which published his paper. Their business model relies on charging extremely high subscription fees to institutions – and it’s a business model being challenged by new media ways of academic publishing (the author will not have been paid either).
      I’m sure there’s room for this sort of analysis *and* Orwell/Mencken. Yes, it uses jargon – that’s academic writing for you (it’s not journalism, nor is he writing for journalists, so I’m not sure why you say “journalism doesn’t need buzzspeak”). He’s also trying to articulate a new concept, which necessarily means inventing new words. Every profession has its jargon – journalism included.
      “Ivory tower”? Come on, I thought you would be above such cliches.

      Reply
  2. Peter Demain

    Why not self-publish? Why not simply get all that text and then put it on eBook websites free of charge?

    I’m sure if you’re established enough you can simply e-mail or recommend it to the relevant people or point them to the place in which they are hosted. Since there is no cost the total readership could even be higher and especially amongst students who are hardly noted as having much disposable income.

    We’re talking a readership here in the low thousands; if your paper carries all the bibliographical citations, formatting and everything else to make it a de facto academic paper (save the publisher’s rubber stamp) then it shouldn’t be a problem to get it out there to your niche readership if you really think it best at the expense of formality.

    I had this debate few years back with a postgrad at Liverpool uni; I said to him ‘if you want to advance views like many authors have, put them in a plain speaking form with only the odd lapse to technicality.’ – He defended the acadaspeak because it lends an air of knowledge and is good for those minds who can navigate the prose. It’d be done for ages so it was fine: Seemed a bit too close to blinding with science to me.

    I never got a degree and view academia mostly from the outside; maybe there are compelling reasons for all the jargon and new words that are so cumbersome and stunted as to mostly not catch on. Were I wanting to put together theories on online journalism I wouldn’t keep my conceptions fenced behind the walls surrounding the gleaming spires of Britain’s intellectual establishment.

    Big questions I ask to myself constantly are ‘who’s going to read it?’ ‘Why?’ ‘How much can they read before moving on?’ ‘What topic should I do for the biggest exposure?’ That’s Journalism 101; ironically your expert can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to embodying what he feels qualified to teach on.

    In local press you have to simplify the writing as the audience can be of lower educational standard. For magazines you have to employ a tone that matches well; eg. videogaming press want a snappy tone with adolescent ‘Top Gear’ish jokes. Millions of jobsworths in marketing/PR tell this in much fluffier, Latinized buzzword language. Past generations did it anyway because it was sensible and didn’t need articulating.

    Me being ‘above’ (or ‘below’) anything is irrelevant. Journalists who do enough work on a theme know this: You want to put across an impression regardless of if you actually ‘feel’ anything yourself; as a freelancer I rarely can pick and choose what to write on. Online I’m a pseudonymous satirist, offline I might put on airs of cultured middle-class knowledge or a down-at-heel everyman fixated on working class or ‘lefty’ issues.

    Journalists aren’t scrutinized near as much as politicians; so our characters can afford to be less rigid – those skilled enough provided they don’t start doing TV work or otherwise become famous can be the everyman, the expert specialist, the refined cosmopolitan; anything that doesn’t stray too far from the boundaries of reason/customer appeal.

    Amorality is a big part of the trade; we were mostly moral and barely hypocritical all of British journalism would be unrecognisable – because we’re human though it is what it is. My point is that you can still put on pretences and be this kind of ‘quality’ hack; a character cut out of the cereal box of your own imagination. ‘Views’ are a means to an end and can be for fun or profit…

    Sometimes it can go too well though.

    But hey if you’ve an opening for a nice paper on the ins and outs of old school modus operandi just give me a bell Paul. Never done work for a uni, but there is a first time for everything…we could put it up for free online! I’ll go get my pipe and mothballed tweed jacket.

    -Pete @ dirtygarnet.com

    Reply
    1. FRANCES INNES

      Hi there Paul Bradshaw, thanks loads for such an interesting read! I’m really interested in the whole range of theories around networking and socionomics and got a lot out of this article. I’m about to look into the ideas of ‘rhizomes’, looks like it will be just as rewarding. Appreciate the time and effort you took to build this information packet for all of us newbies on the learning curve with Communications and Media – look forward to further readings from you 🙂
      Cheers
      Frances of AUS

      Reply
  3. frangolive

    greetings Paul Bradshaw, thanks loads for a really interesting read. I’m on a learning curve with anything to do with networks, socionomics, nodality etc. About to look into ‘Rhizomes theories’ and see where that leads me :). Really appreciate the time and thought that went into this great information packet for a newbie Coms/Media student like myself – I shared it with my partner who is not studying this field (he studies fly fishing LOL) and he found it fascinating. Look forward to more good reads!
    Cheers
    Frances of AUS

    Reply

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