In our new “Web 2.0″ social-networking world, what’s the real promise of networks?
The three prevailing points of view toward the idea that networks offer an exciting new way of effecting social change both overstate and understate the potential social impact of connectivity.
• Analysts say that networks are an underlying structure for practically everything, and we can learn something from this for how we run society. As noted in Net Gains: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change, “The power of networks is drawing increasing attention in mass media headlines as well as in specialized scientific literatures.” Physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, in his book Linked, exemplified this point of view:
“Today we increasingly recognize that nothing happens in isolation. Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle. We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else… We have come to grasp the importance of networks.”
• Embracers say that decentralized, highly autonomous structures–networks–are the revolutionary structures that will make society more effective and democratic. This view comes from a wide range of sources: “Web 2.0” Millenials promoting the “distributive power” of the Internet’s online networks; social movement builders opposing centralized power; and theoreticians who see a stark choice in how society organizes itself. Writing about the effort to halt the spread of swine flu, NY Times columnist David Brooks captured this either/or view:
“We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu… So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?… The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.”
Information and communications technologies drive this revolution, note the authors of Working Wikily: How Networks Are Changing Social Change, a Packard Foundation report:
“New tools and technologies… are changing the way we communicate and connect… The changes can be seen in the way people are working together to create and disseminate knowledge through platforms like Wikipedia; in how people solve complex mathematical problems or write very stable software, as with Linux; and even in purely social activities, like sharing photos on Flickr and meeting new friends on MySpace… Wikis and other social media are engendering new, networked ways of behaving–ways of working wikily–that are characterized by principles of openness, transparency, decentralized decision-making and distributed action… People are beginning to use these same tools and approaches to create social change too–organizing new forms of political expression, social action, and community building.”
• Skeptics say that, sure, networks are a different way of organizing work, but do they really do better than organizations? This comes from founders and managers of the many existing social-change organizations, as well as from philanthropic funders looking for more impact. “How do we know whether networks really work?” ask the authors of Working Wikily. Does the strength of networks “translate into real social impact in communities.” This is not just a reflexive fear of the new or the jarring implications of shifting to decentralized organizing; it is a serious concern about the effectiveness of network models and the not-insignificant challenges of designing, building, and managing networks.
At Network Impact, our point of view includes each of these—analysis, embrace, and skepticism—within an overarching framework. Yes, networks are real and omnipresent. Yes, they create impressive effects. And yes they can deliver better results—but only in some, certainly not all, situations.
More importantly, we believe that the development of networks to achieve certain effects and benefits in certain situations is an emerging practice of specialized knowledge, skills, tools, and activities that can be learned, applied, and improved. This network-building practice benefits from knowledge about how networks work “in nature.” It can have large-scale, transformative effects of the sort claimed by Web 2.0 visionaries and decentralization advocates. It can offer comparative advantages to the organization-centric approach—but whether it does depends on many factors that have to be understood. In some cases, networks can replace an organization-centric approach; but in others, networks link organizations together, rather than replacing them; and in still others, especially when using standardized processes in a stable environment, organizations continue to rule. (As nuPOLIS partner John Cleveland says: “You don’t want to rely on a network to produce your weekly paycheck.”)
We’ve been working with networks–policy networks, advocacy networks, learning networks, production networks–for about five years, while also reading and learning about network theory. And we work as a network: nuPOLIS is a creation of the Innovation Network for Communities, designed with a small core and far-flung networks that produce social innovations. In the process, we’ve learned that:
• Networks are emergent, but can be designed and planned.
• Networks are decentralized and complex, but can be managed.
• Networks are dynamic, but can be assessed.
Now, with Madeleine Taylor as the lead entrepreneur, we’re developing Network Impact to develop a comprehensive network-building practice for social change. NI will provide tools, such as the network assessment scorecard already posted. It will conduct a learning agenda, offer network planning, assessment, and building services. Stay tuned.