What Flows Through the Network Defines It. Twitter, Facebook, Ebay, Amazon, School Network, Knowledge Networks, Advocacy Networks
Twitter is Not a Social Network is a really thought provoking riff by Gideon Rosenblatt it also has links to some interesting data analysis of twitter. I agree with the basic trust of the post and it has triggered some clarity about the nature of designing advocacy networks online and offline. I have riffed before on the concept that advocacy networks are not social networks (people that worked on climate change do not want to socialize with each other and may even hate each other.) But this post brings that distinction into event more clarity.
My big take away lies hidden in the way Gideon focus on the differece between networks of people (facebook) and networks that use people to achieve specific ends.
You could call eBay a social network and you wouldn’t be wrong. eBay does connect people; people who want to sell stuff with people who want to buy stuff. What’s interesting about eBay though – what defines it, really – is how those connections are used. What flows through the eBay network are bids, transactions … and products. That’s because it’s an online marketplace; an online marketplace that rests on top of a network of people.
How about Amazon? One of Amazon’s most valuable assets is its user-contributed product reviews, which are essentially just Amazon connecting people who know something about a product with people who want to know something about a product. Clearly, that’s not all Amazon does, but connecting people is a really important part of what they do. So, is Amazon a social network? Well, yes, you could call it that, but that would be confusing ends with means. While less obvious than eBay, Amazon’s marketplace also rests on a network of people.
This approach line of thinking triggers two responses that are consistent with how I understand networks and yet are really contradictory. (oh well)
Good Networks are flexible: Once networks are built (as they are components of infrastucture) the networks will be LEVERAGED IN NEW AND DIFFERENT WAYS . Sewage networks to run fiber optic cable, cable to run internet, power grid to run data, work networks for dating, dating networks for business, etc. etc. I think all smart network designers really try to figure out how to manage that.
Getting networks to work together comes from establishing protocols for connections and use of the network, but any set of protocols will be tested and constantly pushed for more flexibility. Good network design (ones that embrace a strategy of growth and nimbleness accept both ).
As advocactes, we need to test those protocols and exploit the funcationality of networks to achieve change. In the framework Gidieon suggest, our job is to design "advocacy applications" that exploit the power of networks that others have built. (campaigns on facebook, www.mobileactive.org , organizing revolutions on twitter, political organizing after a local community group meeting, http://www.ebaymainstreet.com/, leverage facebook, etc. etc. ) However, to do this we need to both understand the functionality and culture of the network AND we must understand how we need to complement "what is" with what is needed to make a funcational advocacy network. The lack of mashing together social network (builds trust and communicaitons lines) with the full needs of a advocacy network (feedback mechanisms, common vision, common language, access to shared resources, etc.) leads to the failure of many advocacy camapaigns run on social networks. (look at the funcationality differences between nationalfield.com and facebook.)
Design of networks DOES influence the character and outcomes that the network will produce. (Here is where the apparent contridictions come in with everything above.) Ebay, Twitter, Facebook,Google, etc. are all networks designed to connect people to do certian things and LEVERAGE what they do as connected to create greater value of the network.
We can build facebook followers, we can get twitter followers and build email lists but these acts are very important to be able to listen more, and broadcast more. They are ways to open new pathways of communicaiton to users and from users but alone they are not sufficent to say we have build an advocacy network. Smart advocacy networks are made up of smart advocacy leaders and participants. Without the full set of elements for an advocacy network the network will fail. (see the Nov ananlysis of Occupy network).
When and how we build the advocacy network,establishes the protocols for use, scalability, behavior, and connection (see preventobesity leader registration) this in turn dictates the general parameters of what the network will produce. The network funcationalities we measure, the tools we offer, and the feedback we bake into the design are what create the ways the network will get smarter and the capability of what it can do. (for example: ebay seller trust, amazon reviews, facebook likes, googlepage rank). In a good advocacy network design, we need to provide tools not only for connecting to people (channels and relevant intelligence so people can pick who to connect with) but also tools and services for moving the tageted policy and culture change. We need to do both while constantly developing shared data that informs the network particiapants and the network designers about what is going on, what is working, and what gaps exist. simply put, building a social network is not building an advocacy network.
Finally, in either case Gideon's conclusion holds true challenge to advocacy network designers as the biggest stuggle in an advocacy context.
This is the limiting factor of traditional focused advocacy, one off campaigns, single issue groups and the like. This is the strength of TeaPArty, Occupy, Momsrising, AARP and Moveon. the more fluid they can be across advocacy thier utility power is amplified. These groups established "flexible" brands but we are also testing flexible data policy that encourages sharing the data on individuals that are part of the network in support of the mission.
As advocacy network designers, we want to be as general as possible without loosing the ability to influence the most important elements of direction. We must disgn networks that provide value and funcationality to "hook" users and manage the connections with those users to the greatest value for them, for the connection to each other and for the network effects.
I try not to be so late to the conversation but this post by Gideon Rosenblatt has been cooking in the draft pile for a few months. I think his point is looking at utility and the relative strength of Facebook vs. Twitter but teases out something that I think ties up the ways we think about building advocacy networks. However, I have been hoping that I could come up with a solid post that reconciled conflicts in the way I read the post.