Marta Oyaga Serrano
When a computer network connects people or organizations it’s 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 relations such as friendship, co-working or information exchange. Many researchs about how people use computer-mediated communication (CMC) have concentrated on how individual users interface with their computers, how two persons interact on-line, or how small groups function on-line. As widespread communication via computer networks develops, the 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 different as the workplace and virtual communities. 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… and that’s the reason why the analysts try to describe networks of relations as much as possible, the flow of information (and other resources) through them, and discover what effects these relations and networks have on people and organizations.This research approach has rapidly developed in the past twenty years, principally in sociology and communication science. Also, 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 e-mails and do they feel more involved? They use a variety of techniques to discover a 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].
Related with the information about social networks is necessary to say that is gathered by questionnaires, interviews, diaries, observations and more recently through computer monitoring. In both whole and ego-centered network studies of CMC, people are often asked to identify the frequency of communication with others as well as the medium of interaction. Questions may refer to a specific relational content such as “socialize with” or “give advice to” within a given time frame. The most typical question in the studies of communication patterns is thinking about each member of their team and to identify the means of communication for each type of relation. For example, members can give an account of their work communication with each person in unscheduled face-to-face meetings, scheduled face-to-face meetings, by telephone, fax, paper letters or memos, videoconferencing, etcetera.
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 on-line, a group is only one kind of social network, one that is tightly-bound and densely-knit. The whole relations doesn’t fit neatly into tightly-bounded solidarities. Indeed, limiting descriptions to groups and hierarchies oversimplifies the complex social networks that computer networks support.
Because computer networks often are social networks, the social network approach gives important leverage for understanding what goes on in computer-mediated communication: how CMC affects the structure and functioning of social systems (be they organizations, workgroups or friendship circles) and how social structures affect the way computer-mediated communication is used.
Initial studies of computer mediated-communication developed from studies of human-computer interactions. Such studies focused on how individuals interfaced with various forms of “groupware”: software and hardware adapted for computer-mediated communication. The obvious analytic expansion beyond the individual has been to the tie, e.g., how two persons interact through CMC. Not only is this a natural expansion, it is analytically tractable, and it has fit the expertise of those social scientists who have pioneered CMC research: psychologists and psychologically-inclined communication scientists and information scientists.
A need for new ways of analyzing CMC has developed with the spread of computer networks and the realization that social interactions online are not simply scaled-up individuals and ties. Analysts want to know how third parties affect communications, how relations offline affect relations online, and how CMC intersects with the structure and functioning of social systems. For example, have organizations flattened their hierarchy, are virtual communities rebuilding social trust online, and have personal attributes become less relevant on the Internet where “nobody knows you are a dog”. Given the network nature of computer-mediated communication, the social network pproach is a useful way to address such questions.