Assembling (Science) Networks Online

“People never ask whether birds are good or bad because they fly in flocks,” I say, while a murmuration of starlings whirls on the screen behind me. I pause, letting the audience watch the dark forms flow across the sky, “but discussions of social media always seem to focus on how these technologies turn us into a mindless mob. It’s a condemnation and a dismissal. I hope we stop thinking like that and instead, ask better questions about what drives these amazing patterns of behavior online and off.”

This is my favorite moment in our workshops on social media. I feel grounded – like we can step back and take a deep breath, soothed by the strange and beautiful rhythms of the flock coming to roost as dusk falls. It reminds me too, of days online where I’m one of the flock, banking and wheeling as memes and must-reads ripple across twitter.

It’s not just entertainment either – the hive mind is capable of mind-boggling knowledge production. Whether it’s crowd-sourced science projects like FoldIt (protein folding), EyeWire (neuron mapping), Galaxy Zoo (analyzing Hubble images) or expert communities like the Polymath Project, (blog-based “massively collaborative mathematics”), the social media swarm can both work and play.

But what if you don’t have a flock? 

At a recent training at the University of Virginia, I found myself reflecting on this question long after the event had ended. “This is all super interesting,” a student had said, “but nobody in my discipline uses social media, so I don’t actually think it will be very useful to me.” It’s a fair point.

I gave my standard answer – while different disciplines vary greatly in embracing social media, there is a lot you can do and a lot you can gain. Maybe it’s the solace of knowing you’re not alone doing #FridayNightScience, or help fixing that R code you need to run your next analysis, or general advice about letters of recommendation, job talks, and life on (and off!) the tenure track.

Yes, but still… I found myself coming back to that question. Life is different for early adopters. If I didn’t have the #scicomm hashtag and circles of friends and colleagues sharing relevant papers, would I be as enthusiastic about social media? Could I justify the time I spend on it?

Happily, it was one of those personal/professional connections that inspired a partial answer and sparked this post. Last week, Noshir Contractor posted this paper by Jacobs et al on Facebook – Assembling thefacebook: Using Heterogeneity to Understand Online Social Network Assembly. Using remarkably complete user data and snapshots of network connections from the 100 universities to gain access to Facebook, they found that social networks mature in two discreet phases: initially, the network grows via the addition of lots of new users, and each has relatively few connections, then, as adoption reaches a saturation point, the main kind of growth switches over to increasing connections among existing users.

It’s a fascinating read and I love the elegance of the analysis. I geeked out over the natural experiments in the dataset – we can look at cohorts of freshman in the same academic year, some of whom had Facebook before arriving on campus, and others who got to school first, then got Facebook! The paper itself is clear and well-worth the read, but for a great summary of the findings, see The MIT Technology Review.

For our lonely birds, here’s my take-away: whether we’re talking about new social media platforms, the formation of discipline-specific sub-communities, or developing your own network, the dominant dynamics will shift depending on the growth phase. In the early stage, you might focus on recruitment – connecting to as many useful people as you can. In the later stage, you might switch to closing loops and facilitating connections among the people in your network. Call it ‘network densification’, ‘triadic closure’, or ‘network weaving’; I think of it as enriching your social network. It’s just like being a good host at a party – you want the people who delight you to meet, connect, and delight each other too. It’s a selfish kind of selflessness: the kind of favor that benefits you directly. You are invited to eavesdrop on new conversations, and draft off the ideas and energy created by your nascent flock. I particularly like juxtaposing this way of looking at the problem with this post, “Why Being The Most Connected is a Vanity Metric”.

You don’t need to have thousands or even hundreds of connections for social media to pay off for you, and finding your flock will very likely not mean surrounding yourself only with others in your discipline.

It reminds me of the motto, “Inveniam viam aut faciam” – “I shall find a way or make one” – attributed to Hannibal and evidently a favorite of Francis Bacon. Most of us are having to find or create novel career paths now. Diverse networks help us think differently and capitalize on opportunities outside our comfort zone. Get comfortable with the idea of being a founder, a fledgling, an early adopter.

I may not be able to tell you convincing stories about the amazing ways social media is breaking new ground in your own field right now, but I would love to tell your story in another year or two from now. Take flight.

About Liz Neeley

Liz was an Assistant Director of Science Outreach at COMPASS.

Speak Your Mind