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October 29, 2005

Links, Nodes and Tags

How self-organizing social networks evolve on the internet.

Since self-organizing social networks are dynamic and evolving, any analysis must take account of intersubjective and fluid relationships. Everything is constantly in flux. In order to understand how online networks direct and control themselves, it is necessary to treat the types of interactions and exchanges as different types of links.

Networks are not simply of matter of people being linked to one another, or how many links separate them – their “degrees of separation.” Rather, networks are about how people are linked and in what contexts they are linked. There are many types of social signaling links (asking, demanding, confirming, threatening, rejecting, inviting, approving) and many types of interaction links (giving, taking, supporting, exchanging, attacking, protecting, fleeing).

Likewise, there are types of roles that people play in networks. Some roles are definitional – such as father, brother, wife, tradesman – and some are functional to the network, such as connector, gatekeeper, enforcer. But all roles can be represented as the nodes in a social network.

The marking of types of links and nodes is accomplished through “tags.” They are an integral component of any self-organizing social network. They signal to those in the network what something is and how it should be responded to. Tags are profoundly under appreciated, as they are the singular means by which rewards and punishments are given and how control is transferred. In distributed, complex self-organizing networks ranging from interpersonal dyads to large organizations, tags define the conditions of membership and participation. In a self-organizing network as fundamental to survival such as the human immune system, tags mark what is other and what is self, and in rapidly evolving “arms races” where viruses such as HIV can send false signals, immune systems have evolved signaling and defensive mechanisms as sophisticated as any organization designed by man.

Human social interactions, with a broad array of innate social signaling protocols, are no less complicated. Human beings are continuously monitoring and culling their social networks to reduce their risks and enhance social opportunities. In the rare case where the individual is acting totally on their own, say in a pure self-regarding mode, then all their “decision rights” are their own; they can determine how someone or something are defined and responded to; they decide what their social boundaries are and what the rules are for inclusion and exclusion; they can decide the conditions for sanctioning and rewarding, when to cooperate and when to defect.

However, in the majority of cases, these decision rights are socially distributed, and are associated with certain fixed social roles (father, mother, employer, official, friend, priest, doctor). Those roles vested with decision rights are designated “authorities” and typically control kinship, economic, political, and religious networks.

Social innovation occurs when decision rights are reallocated or recombined with existing rights into new categories of rights that are vested in new or existing roles. In highly patriarchic pastoral societies, for instance, decision rights over property, marriage, and trade are typically vested in the oldest male. However, as in the case of Scotland in the 18th century and many developing countries in the 21st century, when rural societies become more settled and urbanized, decision rights that were once vested in the male elder become dispersed to male heirs – sons, cousins, in-laws and in some cases to wives and daughters.

There is a diffusion of decision rights as dictated by the circumstances of living in an urban setting and through exposure to other social networks. The fact that children may have more alternatives and be less dependent upon the core family unit, results in a re-negotiation of privileges and powers. The modernization and urbanization of China today seems to have had such an effect on the Confucian values of filial piety and parental authority, and would suggest that a new, more distributed form of social control is likely to emerge.

In all social networks tags are the indispensable mechanism for social control. From the outset “definitional tags” determine how someone is to be classified within a network. Common tags include birth status, race, age, kinship, physical characteristics, religion, gender, profession, social rank. These criteria, in turn, can determine decision rights and access privileges. In highly traditional societies definitional tags social rank virtually predetermine social relationships, and rarely can be altered.

As we will see in my next post, social tags for identity and reputation are the building blocks for a new sort of social order on the Internet. The question is, What sorts of reputation systems and “social currencies” will we invent?