Reviewing How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, Chapter 5 Social Has a Shape: Why Networks Matter

Networks have existed for a long time, but we have only recently started to understand them.  From the linear Sarnoff’s Law to the exponential Metcalfe’s and Reed’s Laws, we are only beginning to comprehend how networks work.  Rheingold goes on to write about the social networks that exist online and the ways to analyze them (social network analysis, or SNA).  One way is the strength of ties within the networks.   He also shares his friend Marc Smith’s advice to “be a bridge” between networks and communities and linking them together (see this blog which has a link on the study of connected networks). Rheingold postulates that networks today center around the individual—a phenomenon termed “networked individualism”—and that the individual; rather than connect with just their respective communities in the past; today connects simultaneously with many diverse and overlapping networks.  From there, Rheingold goes on to talk about social capital—what he calls an individual’s or a group’s capacity, derived from trust and reciprocity, to accomplish collective action.  He concludes with a section on the ubiquitous Facebook and how it can be used to increase one’s social capital.  Rheingold’s key conclusion is that such networking and social media tools enable people “to do bigger, more powerful things together.”

Rheingold in this chapter gives a comprehensive review of networks and their strengths.  I enjoyed the new perspectives about relationships that networks; especially social networks; have shed light upon.  A notable one is the new significance that weak ties enjoy in our newly-networked world.  Where previously without social media and online networks, weak ties were virtually dead and of not much use, today our online networks seem to have sort of an hibernating effect on them, keeping them dormant, preserving them, until such time when they are needed, when one could awaken them for one’s own purpose.  Where my high school classmates, or random acquaintances, for that matter, may not remember or recognize me if there were no Facebook, today if I contacted them from out of the blue (say, for the first time in twenty years), it wouldn’t seem at all weird! OK, perhaps just a little bit weird, but not nearly as weird.

However, looking at the chapter holistically, I feel that Rheingold could give the subject a more comprehensive treatment by looking not just at the pluses, as he has admirably done, but at the minuses as well.  For all the strengths of networks and their ability to harness social capital for benevolent ends, these very strengths could be used for malevolent purposes as well.  In this regard, I find Rheingold’s account overly sanguine about the uses and purposes of networks.  I thought there was scope for his chapter to sound a cautionary note about the power of networks and how it could be used to create negative value (capital).  Rheingold could have used some examples on how networks have been used by transnational terrorist groups, and offered some ways on how these could be countered. (Disclaimer: Not having read the rest of the book, I am not sure if he had already covered this somewhere else. I personally doubt though.)

Networks do matter in connecting people all over the world and bringing them closer together.  This brings to mind the Globalization course that I am also taking this semester, taught by Professor Dani Rodrik.  He postulates that globalization is measured by way of transaction costs; that is, lower transaction costs are an indication of higher globalization, and no transaction costs indicate perfect globalization. He proves, furthermore, that in the domain of trade, transaction costs are still some way from zero.  On the social network front, however, transaction costs appear to be zero, if not very close to it.  However, thinking deeper, there is still some way before interconnectedness in this domain becomes complete.  People are still separated (disconnected) by language, for one.  The “transaction cost” in this case; to borrow Prof Rodrik’s idea; would therefore be the effort and time needed to translate from one language to another.  This, in itself, would constitute a considerable transaction cost.  This is where Rheingold’s “be a bridge” advice would help bring about more globalization and interconnectedness in the world of online social networks.

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