August 25, 2011

The Engineers of Human Sociality

There is a line in my review of Networks, Crowds, and Markets which I feel guilty about:

Nowadays, companies whose sole and explicit purpose is the formalization of social networks have hundreds of millions of active customers. (Although they are not often seen this way, these firms are massive exercises in centrally planned social engineering, inspired by sociological theories.)
The reason I feel guilty about this is that this is not my insight at all, but rather something I owed to a manuscript which Kieran Healy was kind enough to share with me some years ago. I have been bugging Kieran ever since to make it public, and he has now, for unrelated reasons, finally done so:
Kieran Healy, "The Performativity of Networks" [PDF]
Abstract: The "performativity thesis" is the claim that parts of contemporary economics and finance, when carried out into the world by professionals and popularizers, reformat and reorganize the phenomena they purport to describe, in ways that bring the world into line with theory. Practical technologies, calculative devices and portable algorithms give actors tools to implement particular models of action. I argue that social network analysis is performative in the same sense as the cases studied in this literature. Social network analysis and finance theory are similar in key aspects of their development and effects. For the case of economics, evidence for weaker versions of the performativity thesis in quite good, and the strong formulation is circumstantially supported. Network theory easily meets the evidential threshold for the weaker versions; I offer empirical examples that support the strong (or "Barnesian") formulation. Whether these parallels are a mark in favor of the thesis or a strike against it is an open question. I argue that the social network technologies and models now being "performed" build out systems of generalized reciprocity, connectivity, and commons-based production. This is in contrast both to an earlier network imagery that emphasized self-interest and entrepreneurial exploitation of structural opportunities, and to the model of action typically considered to be performed by economic technologies.
It is, I think, actually easier for social network theories to be performed (i.e., implemented on a distributed platform of East African Plains Apes) than for financial theories. The reason is that financial theories get performed, basically, when they produce Nash equilibria (not necessarily evolutionarily stable strategies), while the people running a social network service can just build their theories into the code. To give a simple example: If you think friends' friends are extra likely to be friends ("triadic closure"), you write your software to suggest friends accordingly. Even if triadic closure isn't really part of the pre-existing friendship network, it will now be hard to avoid in your formalized, recorded social network.

Kieran's paper is one of the most interesting things I've read about social networks in a long time. Even those of us who are interested in networks from the viewpoint of modeling complex systems should care about it, because it has implications for us: viz., we need to think about how much of what we're modeling reflects engineering decisions made in the South Bay or lower Manhattan, as opposed to (other) social processes. Go read.

Networks; Commit a Social Science; Kith and Kin

Posted at August 25, 2011 09:30 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth