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I’ve been teaching social network concepts in my Social Media class at Shepherd University for the past several years. And it is something that students have always seemed to struggle with or not take a great deal of interest in. This is unfortunate, because these are really important concepts for our social media students to be learning. So this semester, I wanted to try and see if I could make it a little more fun and thus succeed in making the concepts a little more sticky.
Table of Contents
What are Social Networks?
Here’s what I came up with. it worked like a charm! Students were up on their feet, they were comparing their network with their classmates, all while saying ‘this is hard, Dr. K.” But, at the end of class, one student summed the activity up, saying, “this was fun!”
To start, here are the concepts I wanted to teach in this lecture:
- Social Objects
- Social Capital
- bridging and bonding social capital
- Granovetter’s famous study on the ‘strength of weak ties‘ – That is, strong ties and weak ties.
I also wanted students to get a small sense of visualizing their networks, though I didn’t get into any concepts of data visualization that I’ve been learning in my free time this semester.
Mapping a Social Network Activity
Here’s what I did:
At the start of class, I asked students to write out the names of the last 10 people they talked to on the left side of a blank sheet of paper. In a column to the right, I asked them to write what their relationship was with each person in the last. For example, was that your roommate, your brother, your best friend, your professor? In a column to the right of that, I asked them to write out the name of the person who introduced them to that person (if someone did and they could remember who it was). For example, if the person in your list is your boyfriend, and you introduced your boyfriend to your mother, you would write down “mother” in the 3rd column for that entry. Creating this list took about 5-7 minutes for the students to do. Many found it tough but interesting to think about.
I then asked the students to flip the paper over. On the other side, I asked them to write out the names of the 10 people they had last spoken to (the same 10 that is the first column on the other side of the sheet) so that they were spread out all over the paper, like a big circle. I told them to then draw a line from 1 person to another if person 1 knows person 2. I gave them a few minutes to do this.
At this point, some students started to say “Wow, everyone knows everyone.” For other students, little clusters emerged. We talked about this because it came up spontaneously – how some networks may have small groupings and how there may be an individual – such as you – that brings the different groups together. I explained that would be like a ‘bridge’ – a concept we’d be discussing soon.
Next, (and this part you could skip if you wanted to for time – but I think it adds a fun layer if you do want to go into direction between nodes), I told the students to turn the lines into an arrow from YOU to person b if YOU introduced person A to person B (this is column 2 and 3 from the other side of the paper). Here’s the example I put on a slide:
Example: I introduced Mom to my wife.
ME —- > Person A: My Mom —-> Person B: My Wife.
This took another 2-3 minutes.
Twitter Network Visualization
I stopped there, and then showed the #Hokies Twitter visualization I did (discussed in this blog post) with the point of showing a much larger network of people interacting and the different smaller clusters of groups. But, you could skip this part or feel free to use mine!
Social Objects and Hugh MacLeod
Then I lectured on the concept of social objects, discussed here by Hugh MacLeod . The purpose is to help students start to think about 1 way in which socialization is not random, but purposeful. That is, that our networks are not just a random group of connections. We then discuss other things that can lead us to be connected with others – like proximity, religion, family association.
After, I returned students and asked them to write any social object they have in common with the people directly connected to them. They were to write the social object on the line or arrow connecting them to someone else (that is, the edge). Examples may include: hobbies, this class, music, movies, sports, books, etc. They had fun thinking of this. Some had questions like, “What I put for my Mom?” And I told them in cases like that, probably you talk about family matters broadly. I provided this visualization to help:
I then lecture about social capital, and explain it includes the resources of those you are connected to as well as the resources of the resources of the people those people are connected to. The students can look at their networks and see a sense of their capital – who are they connected to? Who are the people they are connected to connected to? That is, who can they draw upon if needed? We talk about bridging and bonding social capital. This is where we talk about that idea of how some students have networks where everyone knows everyone – one example was a student in a sorority and she had spoken to her sorority sisters that morning and they all knew one another. And, some students have their work group, their school group, and their friends. And the student is the bridge between them. This ties directly to the strength of weak ties research. So, ask students:
Which person is more important for spreading NEW information to as many people as possible?
A) Telling 1 of your 5 best friends
B) Telling an acquaintance in class.
We discuss their answers. And, I explain that the answer is B, though it may be counter-intuitive. I explain the strength of weak ties, and that strong ties tend to share similar information so there is a lot of redundancy. But, weak ties – like the student who has a group of workers and a group of friends – would be the ideal ‘bridge’ to spread info about a new job where they work to their friends. Aha! Students can look down and see the bridges/bonds, the strong/weak ties.
After some fun discussion about how all of these concepts we have discussed relate to what they drew on their network map, we move on to the last, and probably most fun part! But, let me say again, that being able to look down at your own map as a student illustrates these concepts in a way that is relatable to the student. It isn’t abstract. It occurs in their very own life. Students get to call out examples of the concepts from their own networks.
Students Map Their Social Networks
Okay, on to that last fun part I promised.
Next, I find 3 students in the class who don’t know one another outside of the class. This was easy to do in a class of 16.
I give each a marker and ask them to draw their network on the white board so that each is next to each other. For time purposes, I don’t have them bother with the arrows or naming the social objects. They simply draw step 1 – them, and a line between everyone who knows everyone in their network. If you have a large enough space, all 3 can work at the same time. This takes maybe 5 minutes.
The students sit down. And, I ask the class, “If you know that any person on the board knows another person who is on the board, then please come up and grab a marker and draw a line between them to connect them.” (Example: Jon is is one student’s network on the board. Sally is in another student’s network on the board. And a student in your class knows that Jon knows Sally. She gets up and draws a line connecting Jon and Sally, thus connecting the two separate networks. You’ll see the final product from our class in the image below). Several students get up and draw these lines. When no one else can connect any two people, we’re done! And we sit back and look at how interconnected our network is – where the bridges are between the two networks, who has a ton of connections (e.g., potentially has a lot of social capital). It is fun to look at. We had one student who knows tons of people from all 3 networks.
Want to see what our network looked like? Several students snapped photos so they could show others. Here’s one of them!
In summary, this activity brought to life concepts that students in past semesters seemed less interested in. The trick was that the assignment was about the students and their lives. They learned something that directly applies to them, and they could see it directly as they were learning it.
Next Steps: Learn More About Social Networks
- Teach your students to map a Twitter social network using Netlytic.org
- Read Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends’ Affect Everything You Think and Do by Christakis & Fowler.
- Check out my review of Connected. It is a great book that tells the history of social network analysis research and discusses many ways in which our connections impact all aspects of our lives.
If you’d like to see the slides for this entire lecture, click to find them on slideshare.net.