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.


Wikipedia’s Take on the Matter

This blog is all about being left-handed.  I (Deftleft in Wikipedia-land) shall use this post to take a look at what Wikipedia—according to itself (or more accurately its volunteer authors) “the largest and most popular general reference work on the internet”—says about left-handedness.  Disappointingly, there isn’t a Wikipedia page for left-handedness; it turns out that a search for the term “left-handedness” brings up the Wikipedia page for “handedness”.  However, this page has got ample information—probably the most of all—pertaining to the use of the deft hand and therefore it enjoys the privilege of this blog’s review.

By a rather crude estimation, one would have expected this page to cover left-handedness and right-handedness equally.  Yet, this is not the case—this page reads like a page for left-handedness, and I estimate that more than 80% of the page’s content is about being left-handed.  Of course one could argue that, given there are only two aspects to handedness, by discussing one, the page is effectively discussing the other.  Furthermore, there are only so many things one can discuss about being right-handed.  Therefore overall, I was quite prepared to forgive the apparent lop-sidedness of this article.

The page for the term “handedness” is long and appears comprehensive.  Without first looking at the page, I would have expected it to cover the key issues of being left-handed, such as the causes, the science behind handedness, peculiarities of left-handed people, discrimination of lefties, and design of products for lefties.  All of these issues were covered, and more.  However, so much material was covered that I thought some of the minutiae, such as the section about the handedness of US Presidents, could just be separately placed in a trivia section at the end of the article.  But all in all, no problems with the comprehensiveness of the article.

The sourcing was mixed.  A look at the source list at the bottom of the page yields sources that are virtually all serious and credible, with not a few being scholarly articles.  On the other hand, there were some assertions in the article that required citations but came with none.  Wikipedia itself suggests that the number of “weasel words”—assertions that come with vague or weak attribution—in the article is many.  On neutrality, I had previously stated that the article was about 80% (probably more) on left-handedness.  It does appear as though that most of the contributors of this article are left-handed and not right-.  The whole article comes across as having a left-handed bent to it.  I am inclined to think that not many who are right-handed would be too enthusiastic about this topic.  This article would therefore benefit from a right-hander’s (or two) perspective on this issue.  Apart from this, even certain critical issues, like the causes of left- or right-handedness, are seeing debate on its talk page.  Wikipedia states up front that the neutrality of the article is disputed.

The formatting of the article appears haphazard and not very readable.  Given the volume of information included in the page, this article would benefit from better organisation and a culling of less important aspects of handedness.  There lacks a systematic order to the way the topics and sub-topics are arranged.  This could be rectified by closer adherence to Wikipedia’s manual of style.  Illustrations are present but are rather sporadic throughout eh article.  A couple of graphics accompanying the more important issues of handedness might help—for example, one to illustrate the genetics of handedness.

Overall, this page is good on content but has room for improvement on the aspects of neutrality, organization and readability.  It could definitely do with a structural reorganization, to begin with.  Editors could then comb through the article to resolve the issues of sourcing and neutrality in general.  It is a slight downer to see your pet topic addressed in a less than ideal manner as it is on this page.  Nevertheless, reading this page was a fairly educational experience that would raise good awareness behind the notion of (left-)handedness. Let’s see what we can do to help this page along.