Category Archives: Boston-area social network

progress on building a Boston civic network

I am in DC and heading for California for several days of family vacation with our college kid. I’m going offline–no blogging or Facebook notes until about next Thursday. Meanwhile, my Tufts students and I have been mapping the civic networks of Somerville, MA and planning a public website though which people will be able to coordinate their service and civic activities in the Boston area. Our progress is chronicled on this class blog. Most recently, we have been trying to choose a name for our project and make some aesthetic decisions about the planned public site. Comments by friendly outsiders are welcome.

Facebook: civic strengths and weaknesses

Facebook is an “egocentric network.” That’s not a disparaging remark; its egocentrism is a source of its strength. As a Facebook user, you maintain and refine your own profile and explore a network of people who have one thing in common–they are all connected to you. Because we are interested in ourselves and our relationships, participation in an egocentric network is appealing. Millions of people have been motivated to join and to invest time enriching Facebook’s database with text, images, and video (material that benefits others as well as themselves).

To be sure, you can move away from your own page by examining friends’ profiles and their lists of friends; but as you move out into the network, you have access to progressively less information. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Facebook protects strangers’ privacy and keeps our focus where our main interests are–close to home.

Facebook does have advantages for doing civic work (discussing issues, organizing events, collaborating to address problems). Nowadays, it is definitely smart to use Facebook to communicate and organize. But it also has limitations, which explain the failure of Facebook’s “Causes” application to raise much money and the decision of the Obama campaign to move off Facebook to

Because Facebook is an egocentric network, the user cannot see the network from a community or social perspective. Our only vantage point is our own Facebook page, not any place outside the network from which we could see the whole thing. That means that:

    1. We cannot search the network for people who might be interested in our cause, issue, community, or event. (We can search the names of pages, but we can’t do powerful searches that would let us see, for instance, who is several degrees removed from an issue or cause.)

    2. We cannot determine who is central to a network around a place or a cause, so we cannot tell who is most important to persuade or mobilize.

    3. We cannot find paths from ourselves to someone else, unless the target directly accepts our “friend” requests.

    4. We cannot identify strengths or gaps in the network that would be useful to know for diagnostic or planning purposes.

    5. We cannot learn about networks that have formed to deal with issues or communities, unless we have “friend” relationships with members of these networks.

Our emerging network map of the Boston area is the opposite–it’s “community-centered” rather than egocentric. This image shows the part of the existing map that covers Somerville, MA:

As this map grows and we add tools for search and analysis, it will become increasingly powerful for community organizing. But its weakness is the mirror of Facebook’s strength. We need a lot of people to contribute content, not just once, but over time to keep the map current. Because the network is not egocentric, it’s unlikely that people would be motivated to add and update information–even once we make it completely open and “wiki-style.”

That’s why our main goal is to integrate the community-centered map with egocentric networks such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Our current plan for doing that is here. In essence, we want people to be able to stay where they are (on their egocentric networks) but benefit from the data in the community map without a lot of hassle.

Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing

Tomorrow (after a very quick trip down to DC and back for the National Conference on Citizenship), I’ll start teaching a course at Tufts called “Facebook, Social Networking, and Community Organizing.” It is a practical project course that will engage the students in mapping Somerville’s civil society. The course website — which will include a blog, a network map, and other interactive features — is here. The syllabus is here.

Parallel to the project will be seminar on relevant theory. The biggest theoretical question in my mind is the relationship between new social networks–which are entirely voluntary and non-hierarchical–and traditional civic networks, which often involve structures. One thread in our class will pursue that question by looking at an enormously important social change in Boston’s recent past, the struggles between working class whites and people of color and the resulting shifts of population.

Gerald H. Gamm, in Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, argues that institutional structure is destiny. Jewish communities moved out of Boston because synagogues are independent voluntary associations. When individual members make choices to move, their congregations die and new ones form where the individuals have relocated. In contrast, Irish Catholic communities stayed in Boston because the hierarchical church was able to provide resources and set rules that kept their churches in place. The value judgments we draw from Gamm’s book are debatable (for instance, was it bad that Jews moved out of Mattapan and African Americans moved in?), but the causal argument is clear: hierarchical structures are more resilient than voluntary ones.

On the other hand, parts of Boston’s South End have been able to form new social organizations that promote the welfare and stability of the neighborhood and include people from different cultures and classes. These examples suggest that institutional structure isn’t destiny; you can change it. Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar tell one such story in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood. Like Gamm’s, their book implies that we need order and structure; it’s just that we can make new organizations.

The syllabus also includes books like Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks that celebrate the increase of “practical individual autonomy” that the Internet has given us. The Internet is more like a set of synagogues than a single community organization, let alone a global church. But what kinds of problems can a decentralized voluntary network solve? What problems or vulnerabilities does it create? And how can we achieve both autonomy and resilience?

Legislative Aide: a civics simulation

I haven’t yet blogged about one of our significant activities this spring. We’ve helped partners at the University of Wisconsin to develop a game or simulation for teaching civics in high schools. Students play the roles of aides in a fictitious US Representative’s district office. They receive emails from senior staff asking them to take various steps in researching a local problem and developing solutions. At the heart of the simulation is the same mapping software that we are using in Boston with college students. It represents the mind of a community organizer or civic leader, who views local civil society as a working network of people, organizations, and issues. Our game combines fiction (the imaginary legislative office) with reality (actual issues and real interviews with community leaders, who are sources of information).

We have been pilot-testing the software and curriculum–called Legislative Aide–in schools in Tampa, Florida (which explains my occasional visits down there). This movie provides an overview:

Legislative Aide from Jen Scott Curwood on Vimeo.

community mapping with Facebook

As described in this slide show, we have been working with college students at Tufts and UMass Boston to build one elaborate “network map” of civil society in the Boston area. The map already has many hundreds of nodes and links; we need to improve the visualization tools so that users can make more sense of the data.

Meanwhile, it has always been our goal to make the map accessible by means of simple applications for Facebook and MySpace. I now feel a little clearer about what those apps. should look like.

On my own Facebook page, I would see a little segment of the Boston-area map with myself at the center and my civic connections around me:

Each of those nodes would be clickable so that anyone on my Facebook page could open them up and see the contact information, mission statements, etc. Moreover, when one clicked on any node, the map would reconfigure to put it in the center, with all its links around it. Thus one could “browse” through Boston’s civil society. One could also search the whole map and put the main search result right in the middle. And one could use the tool to find the shortest path between any two nodes. For instance, if I ever need to talk to the Somerville Mayor’s Office, there’s a path for me via Tisch College and then Tisch College Community Advisers board. This is therefore a tool for community organizing.