Ramblings & ephemera

Clay Shirky’s Thinking About Networks syllabus

From Clay Shirky’s “Thinking About Networks” syllabus:

Communications networks are invisible in the traditional sense; their inner workings are hidden inside devices, behind walls and underground, or pass silently through the air. We will examine a variety of electronic networks — telegraph, telephones, internet — and design philosophies — client-server, lattice, peer-to-peer — and explore the ways different networks alter the experiences that are and are not possible within them.

Social networks are invisible in a different way; because we are immersed in myriad social networks — friends, family, work school — and because humans are so natively good at understanding and working in such networks, we don’t see them. We will examine some of the structural elements of social networks, such as strong and weak ties, clustering, and small worlds networks, to understand some of the ways that the shape of social networks affects us.

… Technological choices embodied in electronic networks profoundly affect their social dimensions: Why can we CC people on email but not on phone calls? How does the one-way network of television differ from the two-way network of the internet? What effect does bittorrent’s architectural decentralization have on its users? Social choices also affect the design of technology; resistance to spamming or attempts to hide from the RIAA have led to several deep technological changes in the design of weblogs and file-sharing networks respectively, changes that alter the social relations among the users. …

… what is special about a network, as different from a mere collection of nodes? …

Humans both shape and are shaped by networks. We live in them every day, and they become so completely woven into the fabric of our lives that the technology becomes invisible, and our primary experience of them becomes social. “Who said what to whom when” is more important than whether the messages traveled by email or carrier pigeon.

Yet the structure of networks does affect the culture that uses them. The kinds of conversations people have via snail mail differ significantly from the conversations they have in email; talking on the phone is very different than “talking” via IM; group conversations that take place in communities like Metafilter are very different from those that take place on irc and different again from mailing lists, in large part because the technology shapes the culture.

To a first approximation, networks can be defined by describing 3 aspects: nodes, connections, and contents. The Web and email, for example, use the same nodes (users computers), but have very different ways of connecting (real time versus delayed delivery) and very different sorts of contents (request and reply — “pull” — for a specific URL versus sending for later delivery — “push” — of text messages), which make using the Web so different from using email. …

PAPER #1 ASSIGNED: “Two Networks” Students pick two networks (Telephone vs telegraph, FedEx vs Bike messenger, etc) and contrast their structure and use. …

What is “information space”? How can you visualize an N-dimensional network in 2D space? 3D space? What visual tools and techniques are there for representing networks? How does the material used to represent a network affect the representation? When representing something as abstract as a network, what information about a network is it vital to represent? What information is it vital to ignore? …

… the 20th century was characterized by broadcast media of an unprecedented scale, but most of the new networking tools invented in the last 30 years have not adhered to the broadcast model. …

What is a social network? What social networks do you live in? How do social networks use technological networks? How do social networks affect technological network design? What are the social effects of privacy, secrecy, anonymity, security, reputation in a mediated setting?

Some takeaway thoughts & questions I have for my students in my Social Software class:

How are networks structured?

What are the named AND unnamed structures (assumed? cultural? instinctual?) you see in various networks?

How does software further those structures? Expose them? Subvert them?

Given the structure of software/system/service X, what social experiences are possible? What are unintended, but possible? What are desired, but impossible?

Look at Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous definition of “network”: “Any thing reticulated, or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”

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