No Network of Networks

Occasionally, I run across the phrase “a network of networks.” The general idea is pretty clear, but the language can also sound a little “empire building” or “the one ring to rule them all” -ish. It is important when this language pops up to dig into it. A network of networks is not about combining networks, discounting the value of any networks, or suggesting that a solution to the current problems is to create only one network.

If people start talking about a network of networks, we want to pivot that conversation to talk about the most important part: people. People are real, tangible and wonderful. They are the heart of any network. People are the ones collaborating to actually make change. In more technical terms, people are the core building blocks – or nodes – in any basic conversation about networks in a social change context. Multiple people can be tied to each other, and when multiple people are tied to each other, they are a network.

Usually, people are in several networks simultaneously. Many of the ways we visualize networks are flat and designed to show networks with various distance across a two-dimensional space. In reality, not only are networks intersecting, but they overlap through many people and can occupy very same spaces. The extent, robustness and overlap of these many connections among people build the network’s strength among them. People can (and do) leverage many network ties to build the quality and strength of relationships with each other. If the networks are functional, the more overlap and ties people have with each other the stronger the network connectivity is among them.

For example, think of a close friend of yours. You might have kids in the same school and be on a parents’ listserv. You might have gone to the same college and be in the same alumni network. You also might be friends on Facebook, LinkedIn and other online communities. You might like some of the same companies and organizations and be in shared “networks” for those issues or brands. While any one of those spaces might claim your relationship with one another as a “connection” in their “network,” you know that it is much deeper than that. You see each other at parties, you pass each other while you’re walking your dogs, you have phone calls, you might even video chat. Those platforms and communities don’t define the connection between you. It’s not a two-dimensional relationship. Your connections are made stronger by each person that you have overlap with.
The ways the ties in a network are allowed to be used are governed by formal and informal constraints. The governance of how the ties and network can be used are called network protocols. In our work, we are very clear about what a tie is (via our Seven Elements). When the ties across a network of people are followed to their ends, we identify that edge as a network boundary. When people are not connected, they’re considered beyond the boundary of the network. Network connections and network resources do not flow beyond network boundaries.

We know that some network builders like Facebook try to make the ties within a network all-inclusive and the protocols for use very restrictive. But they can’t manage all their users’ ties and network overlaps. People are on Facebook, but they also call or each other, and can use different networks like LinkedIn, or Twitter in very different ways.

It is up to the network designers to encourage and enable people to leverage multi-level and multi-network ties to work more closely with each other. Network standards and protocols enable networks to connect more deeply and allow for smoother flows of certain people and resources across network boundaries.

Network protocols are the rules that govern the use of the ties. The ways we help people move resources, knowledge and collaboration across the network boundaries requires focusing both on building overlap and harmonizing network protocols and making the network borders more porous so that the people can leverage multiple levels of network interaction to work more efficiently and effectively.

The vision is not one of a “network of networks,” but a vision of creating the network-spanning protocols and opening trusted gates across the networks so that power and resources are delivered and available to each leader or person―no matter where they plug in to connect or who their first ties are into the network.

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