What makes people powerful? Is it the level of resources they wield? The amount of knowledge they possess? Or, perhaps, is it their ability to get lots of different types of people to come to a party they are throwing? In this interview with Valdis Krebs, founder and chief scientist at orgnet.com. you will learn about the power of informal networks and personal relationships in shaping our world. Through a quick introduction to network analysis, Valdis shares powerful ideas that can help us understand society as well as our ability to change it. As Gilda explains in the DIT video below, these ideas can lead to serious breakthroughs in everything from neighborhood organizing to global movement building.
Valdis, how did you become a social network analyst? I actually started in human resources, as a systems person. From there I got into technology and began to notice how new technologies were changing society. They were shifting both what and who were important. And as society grew more complex, I saw that we increasingly needed technology to analyze society. The software I developed was originally created for IT project management. Only later did it take on its current use. After working for a series of large corporations, I started my own business in 1995.
What keeps you excited about doing this work? I really like taking on new and different applications for the work. For example, one day I received a call from a CDC epidemiologist. He thought that the TB data he had could be visualized through my network analysis method. So we worked together to see if that was true. Ultimately, his data was presented at a major public health conference and the room loved it. Calls like that are the best, where someone says “I’ve got this situation and wonder if your method can help.” This is how I originally met Gilda, aka Dr. Pop. She wanted to map organizations and nonprofits working on housing in LA. Eventually one of her staff members, Andrea, got into the conversation and the original focus changed to understanding how LA slumlords were working. By analyzing slumlords’ connections and networks, Gilda and Andrea got a new research approaches to fuel their organizing. This points to what I see as the secret of innovation –– taking something that’s known technology in one area, and applying it to another area where it is currently unknown.
How does social network analysis work? My method maps relationships, which can be applied to people, organizations or even data. The goal is always to find our what’s useful about these relationships, what’s interesting about them. The slumlord case is one example. Another example of is the network map I created for the mortgage meltdown, where I started to show the relationships that structure both Main Street and in Wall Street. Not surprisingly, this map was really popular online. These kinds of maps are dependent on strong local data.
How much do networks vary by type? There are always some basic similarities. Once you get some networks you can understand principles or patterns that appear elsewhere. Take for example the hub and spoke pattern, which Gilda references in her video. The hub that emanates information controls much and the network. The spokes may or may not be connected. This is a basic pattern but is varies between natural networks and computer networks. (natural networks include things like how proteins interact in the body.) Another example of a prominent natural network is the food web, which has conventionally dealt with who eats who within local ecosystems.
What can networks teach us about our world? Network mapping is now applied to psychology, biology, ecology, business, computer science, in many more disciplines. It is becoming more and more popular. Yet people still see things in a linear fashion, through oversimplified causalities. Part of the beauty of network mapping is that it makes a more complex description of the world accessible. In the example of Saje’s work again slumlords, Andrea went to the city attorney who would also been working on the issue, and she brought her network maps with her. Together they saw what was really happening in the city. They used the networks to get a picture and to start sense-making sessions. In these sessions they asked basic questions like: Who do you connect with to do this or that? Then they follow those data points. They follow them enough to identify larger patterns.
How connected are we, really? While its true that everyone is connected by 6°, those more distant connections are really just between complete strangers. They are not really substantive. The real power is in the one and two-step connections. These are what really matter socially. However on the Internet, and a few other computer science examples, the more distant degrees of connection are very important, because there they have a shared context and language, unlike the social world. Online, everything is running on the same routing protocol. Meanwhile, even within a single human organization there are weak connections and miscommunications,. One simple reason for this is that people are distracted when they’re talking to each other, there engaged around other thoughts. These types of behavior mean they need shorter pathways to connect, or else they won’t always understand the transmission.
How might network maps influence the ways we relate to others? I really value connecting on similarities, while benefiting from differences. We need commonality to move forward, we must be able to communicate. Without communication there is no trust. Without trust we have these long dances between people and we end up hiring attorneys to build artificial trust. I used to work at Toyota, and would witness the Japanese employees building trust through informal conversations and sharing about their lives. The Americans in the company didn’t get it. Americans are used to these high turnover rates and having to find new working environments all the time. Whereas in other cultures, you could be apart of more sustainable team. You may start out building a lawnmower engine, then go into to making motorcycle engines, and eventually create the Honda automobile. This trend was also instinctual to many in Silicon Valley. Sadly it is not applied to our politics, which epitomizes an antitrust environment, where nothing works.
Thanks Valdis, final words of wisdom? Well, the government and corporations are mapping you, so you might as well figure out how to map them. They understand you better than you think. I say – understand the system that you and they are embedded in. There’s no better way to do that than through network mapping.