Thursday, March 17, 2005

Shamrock Power and Social McNetworks

As I was finishing yesterday's post, I had a funny feeling. There was something oddly familiar about the three types of social networks outlined by Cross, Liedtka, and Weiss in in the March '05 Harvard Business Review:
  1. Customized Response (collaborative innovation)
  2. Modular Response (collaboration between roles, rather than individuals)
  3. Routine Response (efficient execution of a well-understood procedure)
After a moment's reflection I realized what was up. I dug through my notes and produced this network taxonomy, courtesy of the collaboration experts at iCKN:
  1. Collaborative Innovation
  2. Collaborative Learning
  3. Collaborative Interest
Considering these together, I had to ask myself: "Why are social network analysts obsessed with the number three?" So let us now consider that question, in the form of a case by case analysis:

Zero is nothingness. The void. A number better left to mathematicians and zen monks.

One is unity. I am one. The universe is one. One is a great number with deep psychological implications, but one is not social enough to be our focus.

Two is you and me. A relationship. For the first time we have real communication, which we can also write and record in binary if we wish. Things are now very social, but lacking context. What are we going to talk about?

Three is you, me, and other. A one-child family, a love triangle, a community. You and I always have something to talk about (the other). Three is smallest group in which I can be outvoted. Three is where the most fundamental social network action takes place.

For a rather mind-blowing glimpse at how deeply sociologists have considered the number three, see "The Significance of Numbers for Social Life," which recounts the life and work of Georg Simmel.

By the way, I learned of Simmel through the work of James Moody, who presented
this "Periodic Table of the Social Elements," in his plenary talk at Sunbelt XXV:

Just as chemists can understand the behavior of matter as interactions of elements from the periodic table, so can we understand a great deal about our social networks by viewing them as interconnected elemental triads. (See also this post and Moody's powerpoint presentation.)

Of course, social network analysts aren't the only people obsessed with the number three. Saint Patrick, for example, favored the traditional shamrock for its leafy reference to the Holy Trinity.

No comments: