“This is a network age, networks are everything,
everything is part of a network, and (by)
understanding how networks work, you understand
how our age is going to work. So we see things
we call network effects, the way value is
increased exponentially by the number of
members, we see our understanding of truth
becoming networked rather than monumental
and fixed there is a fluidity about things,
we see our understanding of identity, who
we are, understanding that we are nodes in
something larger than just our individual
self. So the idea of a network is a
fundamental, huge shift and it is a
kind of central metaphor of this age”
-Kevin Kelly-

The Network Paradigm

Networks have become one of the buzz words of the 21st century with the rise of telecommunications networks and global transportation, to new forms of networked organizations we have suddenly become aware of what was always there; the networks that shape not only our societies and technology but also the natural world. But of course networks are much more than just this, they are a whole way of seeing the world, one that is all about connectivity. In this article, we are going to discuss four principles for network thinking and how this can helps us to see the world in a whole new way.

Seeing The Connections

Network thinking is about seeing the world in terms of connectivity. A network is simply a collection of connections between things, this may sound like a trivial observation but it is really at the center of what it means to see the world in terms of networks. Traditionally we spend a lot of time focusing on things and their properties, thinking about and talking about the size of a house the amount of money one might have or the height of a person, these things are very tangible and easy for us to grasp, quantify and analyze. But the result of this way of seeing the world is that things starts to appear quite static, stable and fundamentally isolated as we define everything in terms of its boundaries and properties. This paradigm also drives us to become very focused upon optimizing parts and their properties in isolation while failing to see the significance of the connections that give them context. Network thinking is about turning this the other way round so that we focus on the connections. This is a bit like what artist call negative space, negative space is the area around some subject matter in a painting or sculpture that gives it context, when we place red beside blue it looks like a different color than if we place it beside green, because they are interdependent they change each other’s properties. In this way, it is the subject matters connections to all the visual elementS in its environment that give it its form and meaning – and this is what networks on the most basic level are about – seeing how two or more things are interrelated and affect each other.

A connection then is not a thing it really defines some relationship between two things, describing how they effect each other, they may be tangible like cables between computers or the roads in a transportation system but more often they are intangible. If two things are not connected they do not effect each other but as soon as they are connected, some aspect to each will change depending on the other. If we are talking about a connection between to computers then it is the transfer of data between them that will alter the state of each, if we are talking about a connection between two financial institutions then it is the transfer of capital that will effect each, with the properties of each going up or down depending on the other, if it is a romantic connection the emotional state of each will be in some way dependent upon the other.

“Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space occasionally is used to artistic effect as the real subject of an image.”- Wikipedia

Seeing The Patterns Of Connections

But connectivity is just the beginning, networks are whole systems of connections and to see the world from the network perspective is not just about seeing what something is connected to but also where it lies within the whole system or network of connections that it is a part of. Being at the center of a network is very different from being at the fringes, being part of a large network is different from being part of a small one. We need to be able to see the whole network because this nexus of connections is like the landscape or environment. We are used to thinking about things as existing within a three-dimensional space in relation to other objects within that space and we think of this as their environment, but when we see the world in terms of connections it is their network of connections that is really the space and this network space is very different to the one we are used to. When you think about a highly interconnected system like the internet it defies space in many ways, it doesn’t matter how far away you are from the other computer you want to get information from what matters is where you are in the network. If you are near a major hub on the Internet’s backbone then every computer will be essentially “closer” to you in this way connectivity warps and bends our traditional conception of space around the topology of the network – if we can’t see this overall landscape to the network then things will stop making sense to us. Likewise, a virus that might start somewhere in Africa can end up in New York before it makes it a few hundred kilometers down the road? When we see the networks of connections we can begin to understand questions like this that appear to be counter-intuitive when seen from a traditional perspective of objects in a three-dimensional space. When things reach a critical level of connectivity – whether we are talking about financial markets, social institutions or within some technology – we need to stop looking at the parts and their properties and see the fabric of connections that they are embedded in and this is how we make sense of a networked world like ours that would otherwise seem to be counter-intuitive and incomprehensible. To see the world from the network paradigm is then remembering that it is not about how big or fast you are but where you lie in the network and the makEup to the overall pattern of connections within that network.

“At the end of the day we are surrounded by complex systems, like the brain, like the cell, like society, like the internet, World Wide Web, systems that are really made of billions of connected components through who’s interactions we get order, you get functioning systems” -László Barabási

Network Flows

By focusing on connectivity we can begin to see how things flow through a system, how does some piece of information spread across the Internet? Why do some ideas spread through a culture while others lie dormant? Why do some people have very successful professional careers while others not? We tend to ascribe all of these phenomena to the quality or attributes of the thing or person that has been successful, what is less seen and talked about is the network of connections that have enabled these things to spread or be influential. Much empirical research has shown people find jobs and get promoted through the people they know – their social network – and not so much on their qualifications. When we see the world in terms of connectivity we can see how things emerge not because of their attributes in isolation but through their spreading or failure to spread on a network, the work of Nicholas Christakis has shown that even something like obesity is related to the social network that you are a part of and that at even three degrees of separation there is still a correlation between people’s weight.

Phenomena like the spreading of viral videos on the Internet or financial contagion have made us aware of the nonlinear nature to this spreading and how things can spread or grow at a very rapid rate. Given some small initial condition, the network can amplify this into a large event. We might think about how internet organizations like Twitter have managed to grow to such a vast membership in such as short period of time, behind all of this is what we call the network effect. The network effect is the phenomenon whereby a good or service becomes more valuable when more people use it, coupled to this is the fact that every time someone joins the network they then become a promoter of it, spreading it farther. If I join some social network then I will want all my friends to join also, this creates a powerful amplifier through which something can spread at an exponential rate and this is key to understanding how things flow through networks. Traditionally we think about spreading in terms of affecting some centralized hub, if we want everyone to know about our product then we put an advertisement on prime-time television. But as social media marketers have learned the network effect is a much more powerful and effective way to spread something through a network. Network flow is about seeing how things spread through a network and how people and things are shaped and influenced by what is flowing through the network they are a part of.


“We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking. And we discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy”
-Nicholas A. Christakis

Robustness & Resiliency

Often we think about connectivity as a positive thing but when it comes to robustness and resilience connectivity is a two-edged sword. Connectivity is what bonds a system together into an integrated whole but it can also be a pathway along which disaster can spread. In many ways then we can think about connectivity as a neutral thing with the real question being about the nature and quality of the connections. Robustness is typically portrayed in terms of the size or strength of something – the amount of resources it has to weather out some disturbance – but when we turn up the connectivity people and things become interdependent and vulnerable through these connections. If we think about the failure of AIG in the recent financial crisis, its size was not important it was the fact that it had so many connections that tied back to one type of security, which turned out to be toxic. Within simple environments where the challenges are of a single kind and things are not so interconnected we can use size and strength to resist change.

But in more complex environments where challenges can come in multiple different forms robustness is really about diversity, within networks this means the diversity of connections. Understanding the robustness of a network is being able to see how diversified are the connections, do they all lead back to one source making the whole organization or technology fragile and susceptible? Or are the connections sufficiently diversified so when there is a shock the organization has the connections it needs to stay functional. The diversity of connections and the robustness that it brings come from having what are called weak ties those that bridge divides, connect groups outside of their local cluster of strong connections. Thinking about robustness in terms of networks then is to look at the quality and diversity of the connections and to see how centralized or decentralized the overall network is.

Summary


Network thinking is about seeing not just things but the nexus of connections that they are embedded within and that give them context, it is seeing the overall fabric that these connections make up and how that shapes and creates a space or environment around the thing that we are interested in. It is about looking at how connected something is and where it lies in this space of connections. It is about understanding how things flow across the network in a nonlinear fashion and seeing how robustness is a product of the degree of diversity of connections.