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July 30 2010


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.

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