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What is a Network?

14 May, 2013 (16:58) | meshforum, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

new_meshforum_logoIn 2004 I began to organize a conference on the study of Networks, MeshForum to answer this seemingly simple yet surprisingly complex question.

“What is a Network?”

Everyone I asked to speak or invited to attend had a different answer – each person drew upon the perspectives of their field of study and their life’s work and each arrived at a unique and different set of answers. The mathematicians answered from a technical perspective citing Graph Theory to arrive at mathematical models that represented networks in the abstract. Yet even the math differed depending on the “things” you choose to measure and define when modeling a specific network.

Transportation experts focused on the Flow – in lay man’s terms they were less interested in the structure of the networks they modeled (since roads, bridges and even buildings change slowly) and more interested in the movement across that network – and how that movement varied over time (i.e. how cars and people “flowed” across the transportation grid of a given area.

Social Network experts were, generally, more interested in the structure of the network and to a degree how that network structure changed over time. They would model people as nodes (typically though some focused on larger groupings of people – i.e. organizations), arrive at some definition of “link” for a given population (couples that had dated, co-workers that exchanged emails, people who claimed each other as friends – remember that in 2004/2005 this was before the rise of Facebook, etc) and then seem to show snapshots of the network structure at points in time. They would typically be interested what the network structured revealed – how it might show groupings within the larger network or how it could reveal key people to the organization based on their network structure.

But at MeshForum in 2005 and 2006 we had many other experts on Networks across many other fields. We had speakers who focused on Logistics (in one case for the Pentagon – among the largest most complex logistics challenges on the planet). Their interests in understanding networks were on a very different scale than social scientists studying dating patterns in a high school or social network experts mapping the political divide in the US based on relationships between books via data from Amazon (that link from a past MeshForum speaker, Valdis Krebs is his updated study from 2008).

Besides consultants, logistics experts and academics Networks matter to nearly everyone – we are all embedded within many different networks and we are all dependent upon many unrelated but often dependent networks in our professional and personal lives. From the financial networks that enable global credit to flow (and currencies to trade) to supply networks that connect global companies to global markets to the true social networks we are deeply apart of both families and those networks we choose for ourselves.

Not to mention the technical networks we increasingly rely upon for our professional and personal daily lives – the networks that connect our cellphones and that run the Internet and enable you to read this post, to share it on Facebook or send out a link to it via Twitter.

NetworkmovieIn the media a Network has long had yet another meaning – a complex business that delivers entertainment – but which does so by combining the creation of new content (“shows”) with the actual running of broadcast signals across the country (or in many cases increasingly to a global audience). This form of a “Network” encompasses many of these other meanings yet also carves out it’s own unique meaning.

What are the Networks that matter to you?

What Networks do you participate in every day? (or every week/month/year)?

How do Networks matter to you professionally? 

I will be conducting a series of video interviews about Networks over the next few months – if you are interested in being interviewed leave your name and contact links below (or send them to me privately). I’m interested in people in all industries and fields of study – whether you are a published author, a university professor, or a student, intern or parent.

These interviews will be shared publicly – and will help shape the next MeshForum conference perhaps as soon as this Fall. Watch this blog for more information about that conference and the video interviews.

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