Who knows who knows what: Why online networks matter

This is the final in a short series of posts on a great new book by Howard Rheingold: “Net Smart”. I recommended you find time to read this fascinating volume yourself (see link below) but if you can’t find the time, these posts summarise the main themes. This week: Why online networks matter.

Network-centric societies

Rheingold sets his discussion of online networks in the context of the work of sociologists who are documenting our evolution from group-centric societies (where most of our friends know each other) to network-centric societies (where most of our network’s contacts don’t know each other).

Police use of Twitter

One of the key features of networked organisations is that they out-compete control and command bureaucracies.

You’ve only got to watch @SirIanBlair, @TheCustodySgt and @J_amesp conduct their brilliant Police for the Public (#PFTP) twitter campaign and compare it with the almost non-existing online responses from Home Office ministers and officials to see this principle in action.

Interestingly, recent research on Twitter has shown that there are an average of only five steps of separation between Tweeters.

If you want to see your own Twitter network, you can try out the utility at mentionmapp. You can see mine below:

Building your network

Rheingold draws on research from a number of fields to illustrate what makes for effective networks and how you can best go about building your own and actively participating in others.

Interestingly, much of the argument is based on the concept of social capital (which is one of the driving forces behind the new Recovery movement in drug treatment – if you’re interested follow @RSARecovery and check out their blog.

Rheingold describes how social networks encourage the spread of trust, a key form of social capital.

Social capital is nothing like financial capital, because, rather than being depleted, trust actually increases when you use it.

The best way to spread trust and social capital is to contribute to the common good yourself.

Rheingold draws on numerous economic and sociological research studies which show that people who help others are much more likely to receive help themselves.

This principle is, again, easily visible on Twitter.

When someone I know is new to Twitter, I help them out – give them hints & tips, introduce them to my followers.

Why do I do this?

Because it’s not that long ago that I was a Twitter newbie and lots of people did exactly the same for me.

Personal Learning Networks

Rheingold concludes NetSmart by talking about Personal Learning Networks.

He teaches us how to develop our own PLN consisting of trusted people who are interested in the same range of subjects as ourselves, with a sufficient breadth of perspectives to challenge our own learning.

Rheingold has learnt that:

“A PLN is at the same time my personally curated network of people I want to learn from and a network that learns together”

He breaks the process of developing your own PLN into 8 key stages:

1. Explore

Explore lots of online sites – blogs, Twitter, Quora and real-life people you meet.


Once you have a sense of the field you are interested in, you will know which search terms to use and which sites to investigate further.

3. Follow

Follow key thinkers and curators via blogs, Twitter and other social media sites.

4. Tune

Keep fine-tuning your network, adding new people of interest and dropping those who don’t add value for you.

5. Feed

Contribute to your PLN by adding your thoughts and views, and  curating and sharing those of others.

6. Engage

Engage the people you follow. Don’t badger them, but comment on their blogs and projects, be interesting & entertaining, if possible.

7. Inquire

Ask engaging questions of those you follow and your followers. Use your PLN for your and  other members’ benefit to pool your shared learning – but don’t ask questions that a quick Google or Wiki-search could answer for you.

8. Respond

Respond to other people’s queries. Feeding the network is a reciprocal business.

And Finally

Rheingold concludes with a statement which, I think, sums up the new networked world we live.

For years, commentators said that “Getting on in life is not about what you know but who you know.”

Now it is about knowing who knows what.


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