Teaching Social Network Concepts: Fun Class Activity

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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.

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.

drawing edges in a social network
Click to enlarge

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!

Click to see larger or download.
Click to see larger or download.

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:

Drawing social objects in a network
Drawing social objects in a network

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!

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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

If you’d like to see the slides for this entire lecture, click to find them on slideshare.net.

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13 thoughts on “Teaching Social Network Concepts: Fun Class Activity”

  1. Nicely done and can be used at the high school level as well. Great ideas and thanks for sharing this!

  2. Greetings Dr Kushin, this is an interesting activity and I would like to adapt it in my classroom. I read it over several times. In the part I would like to use, I can’t understand two things:
    1. “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.”

    The text suggests that in column 3 the student writes the name of the person who introduced the student to the person in column 1, but the boyfriend-mother example given is of the student introducing the person in column 1 to the person in column 3.
    Which was your intention?

    2. When students draw the names of people in a circle, did you have them write the name from column 1 in a circle and have them draw lines between the ones that knew each other in both directions? Where does the student’s name come on the paper? Is it in the centre?

    1. Dr. Khosla,

      Thank you so much for your question and for your interest in this post.

      I believe the disconnect that is causing the confusion is that the next step the student is writing down the names of ALL persons from columns 1 and 3 onto the paper. Thus, the relation between the 1st and 3rd columns will result in the direction that you described. However, because in the next step the person is writing down all relationships between all persons across both columns (in a circle), there may be situations where there is a direction either to them or from them. So, I have them written in both directions. I left that out of the graphic I shared for simplicity but I realize now that doing so caused confusion. My apologies. The student’s name is in the center. I hope that I have answered your question. Thank you!

    2. Hi!
      Nice activity, but I’m still very confused about the 3rd column. Is the 3rd column for people who introduced us to the people in column 1 or something else? If column 3 is a list of who we introduced people in column 1 to, I’m not sure what the point of that is. Please clarify as I’d like to use this in my class!
      Suzi Spear

      1. Suzi,

        Thank you for your question.

        The 3rd column is the name of the person who introduced [the student] to [the person in the 2nd column]. The idea is that later the student will see the direction of influence (in terms of introductions) when mapping out the social network. That is, which direction the influence went in terms of introductions. I wanted the students to think about the edges (lines between persons) as possibly having a direction of influence (transfer of information from one person.[node] to another). For example, if you think about Tweets instead, the Tweet may go from 1 person to another. Ex: I send a Tweet to you. The direction of the node would be from me to you. But if you mention me in a Tweet and I don’t mention you, then the direction is from you to me. If we mention each other, then the edge would be bi-directional. Please see my comment to Dr. Nhosla about the missing slide, which I realize is causing some confusion with this post. My apologies for the confusion.

  3. Hi, Dr. Kushin! I have been following your blog for quite a while and found it super informative and interesting. I’m teaching a social media class for the first time in winter quarter (we use quarter system here) and would love to incorporate this activity in my class. A quick question here: did you asked students to write out the names of the last 10 people they talked to in person or via phone? As this could generate a different list of names, at least in my case.

    1. Dr. Shan, Thank you so much for your comment. I am very glad that you have found this blog helpful.

      To your question, recently I have kept it broad, letting students decide if the communication was face-to-face or via mediated communication. I found that many students easily thought of people they had texted/messaged with and had a hard time thinking of the last 10 people they had spoken with (outside of our current class). I tell students to throw up other people from class because otherwise we get a lot of overlap and point them towards their larger network. So, I tell them to think broadly of the last 10 people they communicated with. Thank you for this question as the way I explained it in the post was a bit vague.

      Please let me know how it goes! Best of luck with everything!

  4. Thanks for the interesting exercise. Just used this in one of my classes today focused on social media and digital dynamics. The one problem I ran into was at the end, once I had 3 students put their networks on the board. Unfortunately there was not a single student (~35 person ugrad class) who knew any from any of the networks, so I ended up with just the 3 networked examples from the students. I was able to improvise some discussions about the density and value of different networks, but I’m curious if you have ever had this happen where there were no cross-connections, and if so, how you handed that?

    1. Chris, thank you very much for your comment! Interestingly, I have not faced this issue. It may be perhaps because I work at a small university and the students all tend to have some overlap given small class sizes (about 20 students). I’d love to hear about the way that you improvised some discussion around density, etc.!

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