The Social Network Approach
When a computer network connects people or organizations, it is a social network. Just as a computer network is a set of machines connected by a set of cables, a social network is a set of people (or organizations or other social entities) connected by a set of social relationships, such as friendship, co-working or information exchange. Much research into how people use computer-mediated communication (CMC) has concentrated on how individual users interface with their computers, how two persons interact online, or how small groups function online. As widespread communication via computer networks develops, analysts need to go beyond studying single users, two-person ties, and small groups to examining the computer-supported social networks (CSSNs) that flourish in areas as diverse as the workplace (e.g. [Fulk & Steinfield, 1990]; [Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia & Haythornthwaite, 1996]) and virtual communities, e.g., [Wellman & Gulia, 1997]. This paper describes the use of the social network approach for understanding the interplay between computer networks, CMC, and social processes.
Social network analysis focuses on patterns of relations among people, organizations, states, etc. ([Berkowitz, 1982]; [Wellman, 1988b]; [Wasserman & Faust, 1994]). This research approach has rapidly developed in the past twenty years, principally in sociology and communication science. The International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is a multidisciplinary scholarly organization, which publishes a refereed journal, Social Networks, and an informal journal, Connections.
Social network analysts seek to describe networks of relations as fully as possible, tease out the prominent patterns in such networks, trace the flow of information (and other resources) through them, and discover what effects these relations and networks have on people and organizations. They treat the description of relational patterns as interesting in its own right – e.g., is there a core and periphery?– and examine how involvement in such social networks helps to explain the behavior and attitudes of network members– e.g., do peripheral people send more email and do they feel more involved? They use a variety of techniques to discover a network's densely-knit clusters and to look for similar role relations. When social network analysts study two-person ties, they interpret their functioning in the light of the two persons' relations with other network members. This is a quite different approach than the standard CMC assumption that relations can be studied as totally separate units of analysis. “To discover how A, who is in touch with B and C, is affected by the relation between B and C … demands the use of the [social] network concept” [Barnes, 1972, p. 3].
There are times when the social network itself is the focus of attention. If we term network members egos and alters, then each tie not only gives egos direct access to their alters but also indirect access to all those network members to whom their alters are connected. Indirect ties link in compound relations (e.g., friend of a friend) that fit network members into larger social systems The social network approach facilitates the study of how information flows through direct and indirect network ties, how people acquire resources, and how coalitions and cleavages operate.
Although a good deal of CMC research has investigated group interaction online, a group is only one kind of social network, one that is tightly-bound and densely-knit. Not all relations fit neatly into tightly-bounded solidarities. Indeed, limiting descriptions to groups and hierarchies oversimplifies the complex social networks that computer networks support. If Novell had not trademarked it already, we would more properly speak of “netware” and not “groupware” to describe the software, hardware, and peopleware combination that supports computer-mediated communication.
Comparisons with Other Approaches to the Study of CMC: Much CMC research concentrates on how the technical attributes of different communication media might affect what can be conveyed via each medium. These characteristics include the richness of cues a medium conveys (for example, whether a medium conveys text, or whether it includes visual and auditory cues), the visibility or anonymity of the participants (e.g., video-mail versus voice mail; whether communications identify the sender by name, gender, title), and the timing of exchanges (e.g., synchronous or asynchronous communication). A reduction in cues has been cited as responsible for uninhibited exchanges (e.g., flaming), more egalitarian participation across gender and status, increased participation of peripheral workers, decreased status effects and lengthier decision processes ([Eveland & Bikson, 1988]; [Finholt & Sproull, 1990]; [Garton & Wellman, 1995]; [Huff, Sproull, & Kiesler, 1989]; [Eveland, 1993]; [Rice, 1994]; [Sproull & Kiesler, 1991]).
Studies of group communication are somewhat closer to the social network approach because they recognize that the use of CMC is subject to group and organizational influences ([Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990]; [Poole & DeSanctis, 1990]). The group communication approach includes CMC theories such as social influence [Fulk, Schmitz & Steinfield, 1990], social information processing [Fulk, Schmitz, Steinfield & Power, 1987], symbolic interactionism [Trevino, Daft & Lengel, 1990], critical mass [Markus, 1990], and adaptive structuration [Poole & DeSanctis, 1990]. These theoretical approaches recognize that group norms contribute to the development of a critical mass and influence the particular form of local usage ([Connolly & Thorn, 1990]; [Markus, 1990], [1994a], [1994b]; [Markus, Bikson, El-Shinnawy & Soe, 1992]). Yet this focus on the group leads analysts away from some of the most powerful social implications of CMC in computer networks: its potential to support interaction in unbounded, sparsely-knit social networks (see also discussions in [Rice, Grant, Schmitz, & Torobin, 1990]; [Haythornthwaite, 1996b]).