Getting Technology and Sociology to Match

Social network consultant Valdis Krebs predicts that site-based social networks are “doomed to failure.” Having to go to a universal website and log in if we want to interact with our friends is all too much work, he says.

It is like the early days of telephone, when the caller had to ring up an operator to request a connection. Eventually, the caller could dial the other person directly. And then there were phones everywhere—at work, in the car, and now in our pockets. We can talk anywhere—all we need is a time and number to connect on.

Krebs calls social networking websites “the landline of technology,” and declares that they will soon wear out their usefulness.

He has nothing against social networking websites. In fact, Krebs has been on twitter longer than 95.8 percent of all twitter users. He is active, personable and socially-conscious in his tweets. He just sees something brighter on the social media horizon.

“When this whole social networking thing will really take off is when we’re able to do it directly from where we are,” Krebs says. “Rather than go to a site that’s the center for everything, I’m going to be the center of my network or universe—which I am already.”

The connection will be peer to peer, rather than client to server. If we want to send a message to someone, he says, “Let the computer figure out whether it’s an e-mail or a text. We, as humans, shouldn’t have to care about that stuff. We have to get the technology and sociology to match.”

These are things Krebs puzzles over as the founder and chief scientist at orgnet.com, which analyzes patterns of connection and paths of information flow among groups of people.

Through software and mathematical computation, Krebs identifies the nodes of intersection that comprise a person’s social network. Mapping out such a network is simple enough, he says. It can literally be reduced to a diagram.

In a “sameness network,” lots of dots and criss-crossing lines indicate a tightly-knit group of well-connected individuals. Ninety percent of the people in this environment know each other. When one of them changes, everyone adopts together. Krebs says it is all fairly predictable.

In a “bridging network,” however, the dots are fewer and the lines farther apart. Ninety percent of the people do not know each other. Everyone is different, they don’t all connect. No single individual is a deeply integrated member of any group. It’s a much more difficult place to be, Krebs says, “but more interesting because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Krebs stresses that the actual map represents only one dimension of human interaction. It is just a picture of the data. To fully understand what we are seeing, however, the map needs a prose interpretation. “We do need the prose because we always need the context that might explain why certain things are happening,” he says.

Fortune 500 companies often hire Krebs to tell them how the people in their organizations are connecting. Something like a new computer software system in the workplace can have a dramatic impact on workflow, decision-making and protocol for approvals. The sociology of the organization changes and Krebs is asked to pinpoint mathematically where those shifts have occurred or to help locate the most productive pathways of communication.

There are many positive applications for this type of inquiry, Krebs says, but sometimes people disregard the humanity represented by the maps he creates.

Potential clients occasionally ask him to conduct analyses that will help them eliminate people from their organizations. They are looking for quick solutions, he says, pushing the math into places it can’t go.

Krebs pushes in the other direction. He prefers to apply his skills to a more humanistic set of endeavors addressing issues that deeply concern him. Lately, he has been using his maps to detect patterns of mortgage fraud, property flipping by slumlords, crime and corruption.

“I’m a fan of the little person, the middle class, the family unit, those kinds of true-blue American things,” he says. Krebs sees this technology used by local activists and community groups.

On the brighter horizon Krebs envisions, technology rises up to match his own personal sociology.