Networks have been a part of human society since time immemorial. Anthropologists have studied interaction patterns on the basis of kinship networks, political scientists on the basis of alliances and ideologies, sociologists on status levels and employment, and organizational researchers on the basis of communication links.

For the most part, such study has focused on understanding the relationships between the people involved. Networks have been looked at as static entities for the sake of theoretical modelling, or used to describe or explain social movements. The networks that sprang up in the modern practice of business and politics seem to have been studied more for their patterns and effects than the actual methods of creating them.

The concept of networks has only recently evolved into a more active one, with much more focus on the processes whereby the individual or group actually establishes interactive linkages in order to obtain a desired end. The noun 'network' has been transformed into the verb 'to network'.

The primary form of communication is face-to-face interaction. Social change processes are a good example of how networking is used as an excellent method of interaction. Networking is a way of forging links between individuals and groups that is all the more powerful in its effects because it is a voluntary act, one that is intrinsically rewarding. People share responsibility for task accomplishment, with each person contributing what they can. Even within rigid, hierarchical organizations, informal networks of people are often found to be the 'glue' holding the enterprise together.

Many of the individuals and groups involved in social movements, especially in the past few decades, have turned to networking as a means of eliciting action when official routes to change have been blocked or too slow. The civil rights and women's movement, anti-Vietnam War protesters, anti-nuclear activists, and environmental groups have used this technique.

It is becoming more common in traditional areas as well. Political parties have always networked to solicit support but the European Green parties have raised it to a high art. Academics are beginning to network more seriously as their work shifts from theory to application. They need to stay in touch with many others whose work impinges on theirs, even though the respective disciplines may be different. As international development work changes from the large-scale to small, networking has become a primary instrument in the work of most non-governmental and community-based organizations. Such initiatives have adopted networking as a way of promoting involvement of the stakeholders in the change process. This empowerment is necessary for ensuring flexibility of innovation through willing and informed participation. Concern can thus be turned into action.

Networking is important to organizing social change. The participants must become acquainted with each other in order to understand how they might all work together to set and reach common goals. Networks can be the means by which those involved develop an action-oriented identity and are provided with the support and information needed to pursue their role in the collectively designed activities.

Lipnack and Stamps, in The Networking Book (1986), suggest that networks have three essential qualities that differentiate them from hierarchical, bureaucratic social institutions such as business, church, school, or the military:

  1. They are composed of autonomous 'segments' that are organizationally self-sufficient, any of which could survive the elimination of all the others. A segment may be a person or a group.

  2. They are decentralized. Though individuals may exhibit differing degrees of influence at any particular time, no single segment can assume absolute control. This is because segments generally collaborate voluntarily. In networks, decision-making is distributed - networks are co-ordinated, not controlled.

  3. They are held together by shared values and unifying ideas. Network bonds tend to be subjective, rather than objective, more mental than physical. It is the underlying value set that differentiates one network from another.

Networking has a number of advantages due to its value-based, loosely-coupled, weblike and non-hierarchical structure. It can encourage the full utilization of innovation, minimize the consequences of failure, promote the sharing of information across socio-economic barriers while preserving ethnic and vernacular values, maintain flexibility and adaptability in the face of new situations and developments, and emphasize egalitarian rather than authoritarian roles and relationships.

Computer Networking

Computer networking offers an interesting new approach to networking insofar as it allows the interactions of the participants to continue independent of time and space. Though face-to-face meetings still have an important part to play in establishing common goals and strategies for those attempting to define and solve problems, computer networks can facilitate the daily organizational communications needed to sustain optimal progress. Feedback on activities and options for future endeavours can be discussed by any and all involved. As part of a larger effort to create networks that are change-oriented, computers have an important role to play.

In the mid-1970s, the capability for one computer to exchange data with another computer using telephone lines was established. The United States Department of Defense created ARPANET, a network of mainframe computers located at various universities that allowed the sharing of information and data processing between members of the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In the following decade, a number of networks came into being: the ARPANET hived off CSNET, MILNET, and NSFnet, and this collectivity became known as the ARPA Internet; universities not wishing to be involved in defense research formed BITNET (initially using the technology of VNET, which IBM set up to link its world-wide operations); UUCP protocols allowed computers with UNIX operating systems to hook up to one another, allowing for the creation of USENET, the first computer conferencing network; and when personal computers hit the market in the early 1980s, it wasn't long before FidoNet was allowing local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) to communicate with one another across several continents.

These networks gave the people who had access to them the capability of transferring software programs and sending and receiving electronic mail. Later this evolved into mass interactive exchanges, involving hundreds or thousands of participants, through the creation of computer conferences and e-mail lists on single topics. Such new powers meant that the rate of diffusion of innovations, previously hampered by barriers of distance, time and expensive communication media, could proceed at a much faster pace.

A good example of the ascendency of this new medium is the fact that the USENET, with almost 200 conferences devoted to a wide variety of computer-related topics, has now become the primary source of information on new developments in the field of computing, far surpassing the slower media of research journals or trade magazines. This is because the USENET was originally created to link researchers in computer research institutes, most of whom are fully aware of the advantages of synergistic interactions on the net. The result is that ideas are conceived and placed in an online conference where they can be evaluated and refined by other members of that conference. There is a strong sense of mutual support among the users, allowing advice to be requested by, and given to, anyone having difficulties in their work. The USENET is the place to find the latest information because it has become the public 'workshop' of the computing industry.

Social change activists have also been developing computer networks of their own to enhance their own ability to cooperate with others who share their commitments. PeaceNet emerged in 1985 in the United States to link peace groups together. Later EcoNet did the same for environmentalists. Web was created two years ago to provide computer communications to the non-profit sector in Canada. Similarly focused networks now also exist in Britain, Sweden, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Australia.

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