It is a good day for insights on networks today. I'm sitting towards the back of a women's group, a coffee morning at a school. When the group came into the room there were rows and rows of chairs set up. After thirty minutes, the room has been entirely reconfigured, and this has inspired me to think more deeply about networks, network structures, network shapes, and network nodes.
I created a little network spread diagram to illustrate. Each frame is a moment in the network, a snapshot of structure and behavior. In the diagram, the black curves are chairs, and the red dots are people, with the arms indicating the direction they are facing.
In this scenario, the chairs gradually get moved into new patterns, based on the actions of the people. This itself may be an interesting observation - the chairs are really 'infrastructure', inactive but necessary components of the network. They become engaged or active when a person sits in a chair.
Some positions are not conducive to spread. In the second frame, there are two groups who are not facing each other. This is quite unfriendly from a human perspective, and very uncomfortable if you have to keep turning round and stretching your neck muscles to listen and talk. This human need begins to change the shape of the network, both the positioning of the infrastructure of the network (the chairs face a new direction), and the network agents or people.
In terms of network nodes, the scenario illustrates the difference between the infrastructure of a node (in this case, a chair), and the active component of a node (in this case, a person). A chair cannot spread a message, but the chair creates the shape of the network. A person can exist outside of the node infrastructure, but that makes them less able - as a communication node - to participate in the action. For example, a seated group uses eye contact within the group, but a person standing to the side is less a part of the group and therefore can have less impact or involvement.
The scenario of the coffee morning provides a good example of prediction around network change, and also the risks in making predictions. When I made my original design, the last frame was a prediction of network development. As the three new visitors arrived, there seemed to be a logic that the circle would be the logical progression. And yet, while I had been face down drawing my diagram on my iPad, the network shape had changed:
Instead of a single common circle, two groups had been created.
There are several reasons why this might be (and I would write more down but I have to concentrate a little on the discussion taking place in front of me). There are node preferences - the people know each other, and the separate group is more of a common group that is different to the other first group. It is harder to get to speak in a large group, and as people like to chat, there might be a good logic to split into smaller groups.
There is a lot more to this, and it is always tempting when you are writing (ok, when I am writing) to turn a blog post into a white paper or a chapter of a book. I'll resist temptation this time round... and stop.