Tools for Thinking About Social Networks

In the past few years, there has been a burst of interest in the topic of social networks outside the traditional confines of the field. Some of this interest comes, of course, as a result of new research published in the academic press, but has been fueled additionally by at least three other factors:

  • the publication of several well-written popular accounts of current research, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked, and Duncan J. Watts’ Six Degrees;
  • the availability of cheap computer power;
  • the existence of the ultimate playground for inexpensive and original social network research – the Internet.
Many of the topics currently being discussed in the social networks arena have the potential to transform how we think about the design of educational structures. I’ll come back to where I see this potential being realized most fruitfully at a later date, but for now I would like to focus on some of the (free!) tools available for people to explore for themselves the concepts discussed in the books mentioned above.
There exist three free tools that cover quite nicely the spectrum of visualization and analysis that newcomers to the subject might find useful. Agna has a gentle learning curve and is easy to use – it is probably the ideal choice for someone looking for a simple analysis and visualization tool to explore the concepts outlined in the books by Gladwell, Barabasi and Watts. The statistical analysis tool R, when coupled to add-on packages such as sna, allows for greater depth in the exploration of social networks, but does so at the price of a far steeper learning curve and less friendly user interface. In between these two packages, both in terms of ease of use, as well as in exploratory power, is the free version of UCINET. Unlike Agna and R, both of which are cross-platform, this version of UCINET is DOS-based; the good news is that it runs just fine under many of the free DOS emulators available for Mac OS X or Linux, such as Bochs coupled to the FreeDOS operating system. Even if you decide not to use UCINET, it is worthwhile downloading it for the sample network files that accompany it – to decompress it on any platform, simply change the .exe ending on the downloaded file to .zip, and run it through your favorite decompression program. Additional sample data can be found on the INSNA site.
For anything beyond the simplest explorations, some additional instruction in the science of social networks will be necessary. Several excellent tutorials by active researchers are available on the Web: Valdis Krebs has a simple yet effective introduction to the subject. Steve Borgatti’s slide-show overview of the basics of network analysis is available in PDF format. Finally, Robert Hanneman’s well-written and thorough introductory textbook on social network methods can also be downloaded in PDF format.