During the recent Economist debate on social networks, danah boyd pointed out that people were including lots of examples that weren’t social networks. She suggested that we define our terms rigorously. While she’s right that it’s difficult to have a debate if we’re actually talking about different things, this getting bogged down in definition is a habit that bedevils academic discourse to the point where we spend all our time debating what it is we will be debating.
Quick joke: How many academics does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: What do you mean exactly by an academic? And in what context are you using change? What type of lightbulb are we referring to?
In at least two subject areas I’ve contributed to over the past few years – learning environments and learning objects – the definition thing rumbled on endlessly. Every paper began with a look at definitions and then their own, and then a justification.
The problem is Wittgenstein’s – as he pointed out any attempt to define the term ‘game’ is flawed since you can always find examples that do not fit the exact definition. As he argued we manage perfectly well to function without an exact definition of a game. What we have are (Jungian) archetypes – idealized representations of a concept, which individual instances can be nearer to or further from. There is thus a degree of membership. In our example, you would say Facebook is close to the archetype of a social network, but a wiki community less so.
I think this is a more pragmatic approach because any exact definition you come up with will exclude examples that are still of interest. Think of it as fuzzy logic and set theory – there is no strict cut off for when someone is tall, but some people are definitely tall (a value of 1), some are definitely not (a value of 0), while others are inbetween and it will depend on the judge and the context (a value between 1 and 0).
Put less pretentiously – if it looks like a social network, acts like a social network and if Scoble’s on it, then it is a social network.