SOCIETY | May 22, 2018

Back2basics: Social Network

The meaning of the words "Social Network"

Social Network. No, it is not synonymous with Facebook.

The concept of Social Network came into being long before the Internet: in the 1930s, Romanian psychologist Jacob Levy Moreno conceived sociometry, that branch of the social sciences which describes and measures the relationships between individuals and groups within complex social contexts. In the 1950s it was realized that the concept of “network” worked better than those of “group”, “community” or “family” to describe the complexity of social relations in increasingly complex contexts, in which elements such as social mobility and new urban relational models made it necessary to have new approaches that were able to highlight the complexity of social interactions: relationships of interdependence between people who share values, affections, attitudes and orientations; processes of redefining the boundaries between public and private; the impacts of all this on models of constructing individual and collective identity.

A cooperative, for example, is more than a group. It is something different from a family. It is not just a community. To describe the dynamics these concepts are not enough. But if we look at it as a social network we can – thanks to this interpretative paradigm – grasp its dynamics and processes in a particularly effective way. Social networks are in fact constructive interpretations able to describe the dynamics and complexity of our society particularly well.

Social networks encounter Internet

Towards the end of the last century, then, social networks encountered the Internet, and it was immediately a real idyll: what better context to develop the applications of social networks if not that which is itself based on a network? Social networks and computer networks share their constitutive structure, made up of “nodes” (from time to time computers, people or information) and “arcs” (that is, connections) which link them.

Thus, in the new millennium, the concept of Social Network leaves sociology and enters society. It becomes the term we use to identify those systems which – based on the Internet for connecting people and the analysis of social networks to describe the dynamics of this contact – develop new models of communication and service. It is the era of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Real, virtual or?

An era in which of communication we can no longer speak of “real” and “virtual”, but – at most – of “analog” and “digital” experienced and acted by people in a context of substantial relational continuity. There no longer exist – as in the early days of computer science – “real” and “virtual” friendships, but relationships are developed that extend as much in the network (on-line) as out of it (off-line).  An era living a dimension of change that concerns everyone.

One fact is enough to understand the impact of this phenomenon: today more than half of Italians are on Facebook – only one of the existing Social Network Sites, but one of the most important – and they spend an average of almost two hours a day, connecting every day. It would be naive and simplistic to think that this is only a form of leisure or shelter for those who have little to do. Using these tools people relate, are informed, develop their opinions on politics, on the economy, on society. They make purchasing decisions. In short: they live. They live a life in which the dynamics of communication are profoundly different compared with the past. A change in which there are positive aspects and no shortage of negative ones.

The recent events related to the American elections and to Cambridge Analytica have done no more than bring to the popular media what was well known to the experts: tools like Facebook and its followers require a deep reflection on privacy, ownership of user data, and possibility of control or conditioning. But at the same time they open up new possibilities for companies, which cannot afford to remain out of this change, on pain of the risk of leaving – literally – the market.

If Social Network Sites like Facebook represent new public squares, new meeting places and new tools for building opinion and consensus, it is clear how these squares have to be guarded, understanding their dynamics and understanding how these dynamics impinge on organizational and business processes, on communication, on marketing and on services. Because while it is certain that these new contexts place companies in front of new challenges, it is equally certain that not seizing the opportunities of such contexts only increases the risk of being victims of the threats that, likewise, these tools carry with them.

Stefano Epifani