Supernova 2008: Leveraging the network for social action

The new study of network science hasn't evolved to a point where we understand enough about the properties of networks to apply the learnings to everyday life and social action.

"We are not really wired to grok massive networks of billions of people and billions of connections." That's how Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School kicked off Supernova 2008in San Francisco. The new study of network science hasn't evolved to a point where we understand enough about the properties of networks to apply the learnings to everyday life and social action.

Clay Shirky Dan Farber

Clay Shirky, adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, talked about collective action as a network dynamic. It turns out most of the examples of real world collective action are about stoppage, Shirky said. "Protest is a normal form of coordinated action," he said.

The challenge is supporting collective action in an easy way for cultural, social, political or any other domain beyond stoppage scenarios. Shirky outlined how density and continuity, as well as reciprocal altruism, are important, but typically not applicable on a large scale. "You get barn raisings in small towns, not in large cities unless small social networks are embedded in larger networks," Shirky said.

"If density and continuity are precursors to social action, how do we invent them?," he asked. "Our job is to do by design a lot of things where we used to get value from inconvenience," Shirky answered. An example of the role of inconvenience is the fact that in past generations people didn't move around much, and were concentrated in smaller groups. The Internet allows for networks to be highly distributed and composed of millions of people.

As an analogy, the development of the GPL (GNU Public License) by Richard Stallman took a few decades to be viewed as a useful idea that could be broadly applied. Some early examples of designs that enhance larger scale networking exist, such as the Virtual Company Project, which is building online tools for helping groups create and implement governance rules for collaboration.

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About the author

Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

 

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