Social networks – the definition thing

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.


  1. John Connell says:

    What do we call it if Scoble’s been thrown out of it? :)

  2. Adam says:

    I don’t think we have archetypes at all. I think the people who got the definition game right did it long before either Jung or Wittgenstein–and they were David Hume, and Bishop Berkeley before him.
    Their argument basically went like this: when you think of the word “Dog”, you don’t have some generalized abstract representation in mind. In fact, you have some very specific examples that you have just chosen to put under the category of “Dog”.
    Attempting to define a word is pointless, because words are basically like a Set in mathematics–it isn’t about the name, it’s about what you put in it.
    Communication occurs not because we use precise definitions, but because we are able to draw upon common experiences. So in a debate over Social Networks, if people start bringing in erroneous examples, all you have to do is say “no no, I’m not talking about chat rooms, blogs, or message boards–I’m talking about places like MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook.” Words have no essential definitions–but clarification is both helpful and easy, if you don’t overcomplicate matters needlessly.

  3. Adam says:

    D’oh, you actually mentioned set theory and I missed it before using the phrase “like a set in mathematics”. Please forgive me, I have what we doctors like to call “stupidity”.

  4. Martin says:

    No need to apologise Adam, the distinction you make between exemplars and archetypes is correct. Sometimes we operate to an idealised example, which doesn’t actually exist, and sometimes we operate with examples of actual set members. Or maybe it’s both. The point is essentially the same – and you put it well, we know what we’re talking about and don’t need to get too bogged down in definition.

  5. Jeff says:

    Martin says “there is no strict cut off for when someone is tall”. Thousands of head-meets-doorway moments might suggest otherwise 😉

  6. Nigel says:

    I think O’Reilly’s definition of Web 2.0 might also be a useful example. Web 2.0 isn’t a “thing” but a centre of gravity and plotting applications around it shows how close they are to that centre – thus the boundary of what is in our “Web 2.0 system” can be drawn to include or exclude items of interest for further investigation. Are social networks and virtual communities synonymous? If they might be – and some days I’d suggest they are – we might think of Wikipedia as a social networking tool with some folk more active and others simply “observing” (by using the information posted).

  7. Tim Davies says:

    This is a really useful set of reflections and comments. Offers me a route of escape from the last three hours musing on ways to draw a usable definition of SNS.
    Thanks :)

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