Cloud Street

Thursday, February 02, 2006

You may look like we do

David cites an empirical analysis of social network evolution in a large university community, based on a registry of e-mail interactions between more than 43,000 students, faculty, and staff. ("Hey, gang, let's do the research right here!")
The results show that at least in this particular environment, people were more likely to form ties with others when they had a shared "focus" such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance, but were less likely to interact solely on the basis of shared characteristics such as age or gender.
David headlines his post "Interests, not demographics", but I don't think the study is quite saying that. It's true that demographics do not a network make - but then, I've known that ever since my mother first enjoined me to play with a complete stranger of my own age and sex while she talked to the kid's mother, who wasn't a complete stranger (to her).

But I don't think the data's there to conclude that 'interests' are key either, as much as I might like to. The reference to a shared "focus" such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance sounds more like history than interests. It may be a reasonable generalisation to say that enduring communities are interest-based - particularly if we include the granfalloonish limit case of communities which perpetuate themselves by making a shared interest of their own perpetuation. Conversations, though, just happen. A conversation starts for any number of reasons - not least because two people find each other simpatico/a - and once it's started the participants generally want to carry it on. History, not interests.

From this it also follows that there are times when conversations just don't happen, and all the shared interests in the world won't make them happen. And, given that people who are having a conversation generally want it to continue, there are sometimes very few gaps in which a new conversation can get a foothold. Which brings us back to the granfalloons. Perhaps we can see some communities as large-scale conversations which have outlived any connection with interest, for many or most of the participants, but still persist - and, by persisting, prevent new and potentially interest-based conversations from arising.

(I can be a phenomenologist and a Marxist, can't I?)


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