What we mean when we talk about Networks

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about networks.  By networks, I mean groups of people, connected to one another via the Internet, who are able to do things and solve problems together by way of their direct connections to one another.

As seemingly obvious as that definition may be, it’s worth focusing on for a second, because I actually don’t think it’s a great word for describing this phenomenon.  It either sounds too generic (like “isn’t that just the internet?”), too trivial (“you mean social networks?”), or too much like the older notion of “networking” (in the political / social climbing / career-building sense). And what I’m trying to describe isn’t any of those things.

Take the example of my old refrigerator.  I don’t need it anymore, so what do I do? Submitting a request on my city’s website for them to haul it away would be using the Internet to solve my problem (and is certainly convenient), but it’s not solving it in a networked way.  If that same request could be seen & responded to by anyone (say, a salvage company, or just someone who wanted an old refrigerator), that would constitute operating as a network.

Or, music: buying a track on iTunes or Amazon is using the Internet.  Joining a room at Turntable.fm where someone is DJing is using the Network.

Or, hotels: reserving a room online is using the Internet.  Booking someone’s apartment via AirBnB is using the Network.

Etc etc etc.

As you can see in these examples, acting as a network isn’t just “being on the Internet”, it’s not just about “social networks”, and it’s not just about “networking” in the classical sense.

“Acting as a network” is a unique and profound idea.  Network dynamics are unlocking enormous creative, societal and economic opportunity, and they’re are also disruptive and threatening to the old way of doing things (hierarchically, via industrial distribution). Yet the terms used to describe it don’t immediately resonate outside of the land of web thinkers.

Is there a better way?

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