Reading Social Networks

I’m doing some work next month with some folks on social networking, and one of the elements that I’m thinking a great deal about, thanks to a colleague‘s suggestion, is how we can help educators to read social networks as texts.

I have a hunch that one can read a network like one reads any other text.  That said, though, I’m finding that it’s a bit harder to see a network than it is to see a simpler, perhaps more linear text.

Specifically, I’m trying to design an activity that encourages some rhetorical analysis of the networks that educators and others are using to share information.

In layman’s terms, I’m hoping to generate a list of questions that folks can use as they read through networks to help them identify what the networks are communicating, how they’re communicating what they’re communicating, and how those messages are delivered.

I’m wondering what questions you would ask readers/participants to think about or look for as they work their way through a particular network or networks.  What do you think we should be helping our students to think about as they read and create their own networks?  I’d also be curious to hear your response to this general idea.  I’m discovering that as I try to draft questions, I find myself using language about networks that I think is better used to describe group or community characteristics.  Worth doing?

Here are a couple of questions that I think are pretty important – I’d be really curious to hear yours in the comments:

1.  Who are the nodes in the network that you are reading/analyzing?  Where do you see boundaries of membership in this network?  How do you know they exist? (Self-identified or apparent to readers?)

2. How are they connected?  From what perspective are you reading the network – how are you seeing the connections? How might another reader see those connections?  The same?  Differently?  How do you know?

3.  What practices or beliefs are communicated through the network?   Are these explicit?  Implicit?  What methods of communication are privileged in the network? Under or unvalued?  How do you know?

9 thoughts on “Reading Social Networks

  1. Rob J says:

    How about questions that help readers analyze relationships within the network and how those relationships drive discussion. For example, in a NING network I belong to, I will react more honestly to some users than others. In certain cases I will off-shoot a public conversation into a private one based on the individual I’m talking with.

    This most definitely is a worth while process to go through. Great questions for folks to consider before joining a network. Questions like these will help students filter their networks.

    Rob Js last blog post..Changing the teacher or changing the teaching?

  2. Franki says:

    What a smart idea. Looking forward to hearing more. It might be interesting to see what we discover when we look at leadership in a network–Some networks have clear “leaders” while others do not. Is there a leader and how does that work? What is valued by the leader and the group?
    Hope you’ll keep us posted on this. Sounds so interesting.

    Frankis last blog post..Nursery Rhyme Connections

  3. What an original and intriguing idea! As an extension of “reading” the social network, what does the reader view as his or her role within that network? Leader? Contributor? Someone who consciously moves the network in one direction or another? Antagonist? As Rob J said, “Questions like these will help students filter their networks.” The role questions will also help students take responsibility for their networks.

  4. Dan Maas says:


    I like your thinking here. How about this:

    What is the social significance of this network? Does it have an agenda? Are there key network members and what affiliations do they have?

    How has the activity in this network influenced your perspectives? Has your world view changed? What actions have you or will you take based on your interaction with this network?

  5. Jen says:

    How do you define a network? How do you locate a network? What are the boundaries? Can you identify the point of exclusion from a network? If there is no exclusion, is it really a network? What causes exclusion? How do you read a network when the visible artifacts are only the tip of the iceberg? What is the value of the visible artifacts? How long does it take to become an embedded observer in a network? Is it possible to observe without participating? How can social research be conducted on electronic connections, when so much of the activity is hidden in private conversations, individual thought processes, and external action and feedback? How do external forces (commercial, social, political) exert pressure on networks? How do social pressures and the cleansing of digital identity affect the authenticity of open participation in networks? Is the negotiated reality representative of any one individual’s perception of reality, or is consensus-building the natural evolution of all networks? I should stop now.

    Jens last blog post..I Have Something to Say

    1. Bud Hunt says:

      I don’t know how to incorporate many of these excellent questions into the list itself. But they’re important ones, perhaps speaking as much to the difficulties of such a task as to anything else. Thanks.

  6. Bud;

    I think these are key questions that we are not looking at in education. I’ve called for 2 years for the creation of a piece of software that would let us begin to track information that flows through a network. I’d like to see where discussions start and move on to. I’d like to be able to “read” the information that is contained in the network and in how it is designed. I’ve written a few blog posts on it, but I think this is the first one on it of mine (that I could find searching my own blog anyway) :

    There’s also a wikipedia entry on educational informatics that someone started:


    Clarence Fishers last blog post..Education 101

  7. Ann Oro says:

    I’ve been giving this thought all day. I keep coming back to: What is your relationship with the individuals in the network? What is their perceived responsibility to continue the conversation?

    In some cases, I’ll leave a comment on a person’s blog and they never respond. It leaves me wondering if they had any thoughts in response to what I’ve written. Other people seem to respond to any comment. Depending on the topic, Twitter can be a great place to bounce and idea around. The thing there is that you need to take time to build a back and forth relationship. Forums can generate some great information, but you need to remember to come back and check out the progress of the topic.

    This leads me to my second thought. Another line of questions revolves around how you sustain interest in a conversation: How will you choose to return to the conversation? Bookmark it? RSS feed to forum topic? Comment tracking program for a blog post? Get notified of followup comments via email.

    Ann Oros last blog post..Sharing Gimp Lessons

  8. Bud Hunt says:

    Lots of excellent responses here – thanks. I’ve been away for a bit on vacation – and am going to start trying to pull all of these questions into an activity using this etherpad – feel free to fiddle with the text. Here’s the link:

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