Is our network thinking is too static?

Last night at the RSA, Nicholas A. Christakis was giving a talk called “Connected: the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives”.



I missed it, unfortunately, due to work commitments, but as is the nature of the modern age, you can never truly miss anything any more… Simon Kendrick has constructed this excellent post about the event (though he wasn’t there either, but followed it live online)…

UPDATE …and now the audio is up on the RSA site here too.

For the time being, something in Simon’s post made me think about the frailty of how we tell people about social networks….

He believes that we should look at the networks, rather than the individuals, when formulating policies and strategies, because properties aren’t understandable when just looking at individual components. He used the (excellent) example of carbon.



When carbon atoms are linked together in one way, they form graphite. When linked in another way, they form diamond. Two very different structures, with very different properties

Now, whenever we talk about networks, it isn’t usually that long before a drawing not entirely unlike the carbon lattice above comes along to try and describe the network…



We’ve all done it, I’m sure.  Because if you’re writing a presentation, or a paper, or a book, then it’s the best way you’ve got to describe what’s going on.

Now, Nicholas says there are three ‘dimensions’ that matter (again, from Simon’s post):

  • The number of friends/connectors per person/node
  • The interconnectedness of friends – are the nodes I am connected to also connected to one another?
  • The position within the overall network – is my node in the centre or towards one of the edge?

So you’d probably create a ‘three dimensional’ shape to try and describe a better network…





Max from here at PHD (who was there last night, the lucky blighter) pointed me to this video of an example used last night on the spread of obesity…


But I’m wondering; are we missing the dimension that’s perhaps most important of all?  The one that Doctor Who would remind us to look at…



…the dimension of TIME.

Think about it; over time, people move in the network, relevant to each other.  If you take a snapshot of the network at a give period in time, sure, it’ll look like any of the models above.

But if you then take a picture even a day later, the network will have changed.  Our snapshot will be out of date.

So I wonder if we should we be trying to look at a different visual model to try and explain networks?  

If you watch the first twenty seconds or so of the video below, is this a better way of thinking about networks…

…all part of the same flowing, living organism, fulfilling different roles at different times? 

It’s not quite right, perhaps, but it makes a lot more sense to me than thinking about a static network.




Matt‘s pointed me in the direction of Dynamic Network Thinking, which is…

“…an emergent scientific field that brings together traditional (SNA), link analysis (LA) and multi-agent systems (MAS) within network science and network theory…” (Wikipedia)

Basically, rather than view the ‘nodes’ (people, to you and I) in a network as stationary and fixed, it builds in the capacity for them to learn and change over time. 

Changes in one person affect those around them.  The need to recognise the ‘time’ dimension is built in.

I wonder if the next step is around something that Simon mentioned about the ‘multiverse’ in response to reading the post…

Now, the theory behind the DC Comics multiverse is that it is “multiple versions of the universe existing in the same physical space”.



(Read all about it here, if you wanna)

So what you get with the multiverse is a character who exists in each version of Earth, but who is different from their other world counterpart.  For instance, this is Earth-One Flash…



…and this is Earth-Two Flash…



Different circumstances on different worlds means that each counterpart is different; attitudes, relationships, history, perception etc.

Which actually sounds a little like the way we act in different networks we exist in; work, home, friends, clubs and so on… we’re not always the same type of person, we will undoubtedly flip between different states depending on the network we’re in, and the subject matter we’re talking about.

Each of us has different personalities within the Social Multiverse.

That mat just be worth a post of its own soon…