Hierarchies in Social Networks

Over the last week or so, I’ve turned my mind to the place of hierarchy within social networks and forms of ‘social media’ and what this means as these new forms of communication open up to more people.

Human Pyramid

The lie of democracy pretends that we all have an equal voice in terms of our vote when we are choosing our leaders. The reality is far from that. The loudness of the voice is determined by many other factors such as wealth, social standing, professional status, age, physical appearance and many other discriminations that run through every group that forms and society that is created around communities.

In some ways, ‘social media’ such as blogs, micro-blogs such as Twitter and sites such as Newsvine, Reddit, StumbleUpon and many like them have an undemocratic ‘feel’ to them. They allow anyone so the theory goes to become a ‘citizen journalist’ or rather a ‘citizen curator’ without needing to explain who they are and why they are qualified to do so.

More recently a few conversations I’ve been involved in (yes, on Twitter mostly) have highlighted the crossover between the importance of ‘status’ and the expectation that the same status should be accorded on these more open, more ‘democratic’ platforms.

This for me, is the rub of the ‘old’ against the ‘new’ and while we cannot disregard ‘real world’ influence in affording respect to particular views – in some ways, it is a parting of ways for the original  mentality which ask people to be judged on the content and value of their words rather than the letters before or after their name.

There is no way to break down these barriers of status completely. Barack Obama will always have more followers on a social media site than John Smith, a school student from Little Hadbury and it is quite right too.

Perhaps though, we are losing something by disregarding the content and influence that John Smith could have if given the channel and voice to do so.

Some of the most precious insights I have gained from my brief dallying in social media forms has been particularly from users and carers of services that I provide as a social worker but also from social work students. Indeed (no offence intended) it is often students that can ‘teach’ more insights than professors because academics have louder ‘natural’ voices which are provided by the status that they are (quite rightly) accorded in the society in which we live in.

Various tools like Klout and its ilk are trying to establish ‘hierarchies’ onto these communication tools – indicating that some people are ‘better’ than others where the real value is more personal and unlikely to be provided by a logarithm.

My concern is that as the ‘real world’ hierarchy creeps across social networks is not that we should ignore them – of course not. It is a great way of sharing knowledge and understanding but more that we must not lose this opportunity to lose the naturally quieter voices. Indeed, we should seek them out and learn from them.

Human beings like categorising things – including ourselves. We need to know our own place in these hierarchies. Sometimes our perceptions of where we are on these hierarchies is different from where we might place ourselves but really, the most important thing is to listen to all who have voices – sometimes learning comes in the least expected places.

I’d be interested in the experiences of others with the changing hierarchies particularly within social networks? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? How do you interpret the changes that are being experienced by society?


6 responses to “Hierarchies in Social Networks

  1. I know that there are a number of examples of traditional hierarchical organisations where there is concern about the ability of social media to over-turn the power structures. I hear tales of directors and senior managers who don’t “get” social media who are disconcerted at the ability of people lower down the food chain to converse directly with the tweeting Chief Executive. Personally, I hope that social media can eventually be used to get rid of some of the unnecessary hierarchies, and flatten structures. If organisations are smart, they will use social media to identify the people with the brightest ideas and those who can really get stuff done.

  2. Tom Phillips

    I agree with John on that. It is an issue on something like Yammer in particular, though when it embeds properly, it ought only be a passing thing. That’s because those who feel discomfited usually realise they can use the freedom, flexibility and informality to worthwhile ends themselves.

    I don’t personally feel, from experience and observation, that anyone staying wedded to deference and hierarchical etiquette lasts long as that type of user. They go, or change. Or, of course, they never dip a toe in in the first place.

  3. I think that social media which emphasise hierarchies will damage themselves as they will miss out on the teal benefits of social media. The real value in social media comes from the benefits which you mention in your article. These features are valued by many and people will resist attempts to weaken these values. Also sites which don’t operate democratically eill lose potential originality and innovation

  4. Interesting this has just been brought to my attention via twitter. Yesterday I blogged about a similar theme but actually had a different perspective.


    I do believe John Smith has a voice, in fact potentially an influential one, and although he probably can’t speak to Barack Obama directly he can do so to many other ‘officials’ or ‘leaders’ who do engage and reply. I think it is this breaking down of hierarchies that protects against the increasing trend to need to be ‘popular’ – liked, followed, friended etc.

    Time will tell how the social and real media organise themselves.

  5. I agree – the fact that it *is* social media invites the exchange.

    If someone is tweeting and doesn’t want to be answered by the nobody – why are they there in the first place? I don’t think many people pay attention to numbers following users unless they want to be in a ‘ I’ve got more than you’ contest – which says more about them and how they see social spaces and power… Just because a users has x, 00s of users doesn’t mean what they say is more valid than any other user.

    I’ve become a fan of twitter because it has enabled me to participate in conversations across a huge number of areas with a large variety of people – including a member of the house of lords and others. Its broken down the hierarchy for me.

  6. This discussion is of great interest to me, I’ve had conversations on Twitter of the past few weeks on this topic, I also read Damian’s blog this morning. I agreed with Damian on followership, but not on hierarchy – this blog more accurately encompasses the new world hierarchy that is emerging: when I say new world, I probably mean old world re-invented. My blog tomorrow morning ‘hierarchy, cliques and Twitter rules (dtbarron.wordpress.com) discusses my perspective – I’d welcome comments. I enjoyed the blog and the airing of the issues it is raising.

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