Demystifying Networks: Are You Gandalf or Peregrin Took?

There’s a lot more to networking than we realise, Hannah van der Deijl explains. Apparently Tolkien knew this as well.


The Myth of Urgent Networking

The word “social network” seems to conjure up two types of associations in the current discourse. At job fairs and job market seminars, ‘networking’ is mostly presented as a conscious activity. You ‘build’ your network, in order to later be able to ‘use’ your network for various purposes, such as finding information, jobs or other opportunities. In an extreme example, a friend told me about a seminar in which the speaker encouraged her audience to create a folder with information about their contacts, including such information as birthdays and the names of their kids.

The second association that comes with “social networks” has to do with social media1, which are built on friend-to-friend connections and recommendations. Ultimately, there does not seem to be a big distinction between the popular view on ‘job market’ networks and these online networks. Again, job market gurus and web writers have been quick to jump in and extend advice in this area: it is important that you are in control of your web presence and use the new social media to create an attractive profile of yourself.

Taken together, we might call this story The Myth of Urgent Networking. In this story, social networks feature as a tool that exist for us to use and further ourselves in the world. After all, these (online) networks have sprung up and why not explore what they can mean for us? I am not trying to argue against the importance or existence of networks. Instead, I’d like to ask these questions: should we care about network effects? And how can they be useful? In answering these questions, we will mostly bring some nuance to the existing views on networking by adding some lesser-known details about networks.

Problems with the urgent networking view

The first problem with the general representation of networks is a misguided and overly simplistic focus on the utilitarian side of networks and the question: “what can my network do for me?” This is sad because it takes a lot of the fun out of meeting people as it re-categorizes various activities that were previously simply called “socializing”, “drinking”, or “procrastinating”.

This view, which encourages taking an unemotional stock of our environment furthermore discounts the importance of individual agency and inflates the importance of getting things done through magical connections, with little understanding of the underlying structure of these connections and too much talk of carrying the names of peoples’ kids around in a special folder?

A second problem on of incomplete information on network structures. Forming new connections is not always helpful (for instance, you might not like the person you just met). In short, a little extra knowledge on the structure of networks can help you navigate networks and put them into a less urgent perspective.

Adding reciprocity to the network view

There are a few principles that illustrate how the ‘utilitarian’ view of networks can never hold true over the long run.

Clue 1: networks exist irrespective of “networking”

Whether you are an early Facebook adopter or a conscious internet objector; a social butterfly or someone who prefers to hang with their inner circle – if you talk to people every once in a while, you’re in a network. In this sense, the verb “networking” doesn’t make that much sense, other than as a proxy or cover-up for ‘partying’ in a work context (see also the above).

What is more, networking is not something that does not require active doing most of the time; it can simply imply the observation of existing ties and social patterns between individuals. Any time people meet each other you could also apply the network perspective as an alternative way of observing the situation. In that sense, networks are also not restricted to the work environment and there is no urgent need to build anything.

Clue 2: spiraling causality

Furthermore, there is a logical inconsistency to the idea that networks can magically further our career or success. One way to look at this is the simple observation that ties between people are generally reciprocal2. Another way to look it is to connect network effects to individual productivity. Perry-Smith and Shalley3 (2003) speak of “spiraling creativity”: if you are good at something, people will hear about it. It will help you form connections, which will help you do a better job with what you are doing, which people will then hear about, and so on.

In other words, networking is never going to be useful as an isolated activity; it is not the cause of success or a substitute for hard work; and it can never be one-directional over the long run. We may summarize in the epic words of John F. Kennedy.: “ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country”4 (taking “country” loosely as “group of people you care about”).

How network knowledge can help

The other problem described above is the incompleteness of the generally vague use of the term words “social network”. There seems to be a notion out there that ‘networks and connections matter’, without specifying how these networks work. There are a few pieces of information that help specify why the network paradigm, at the end of the day, is a very useful way to look at the world.

Building blocks: ties and triads

A tie, or a connection between two people, forms the basic building block of networks. A useful distinction at this level is the difference between strong and weak ties. Your direct friends and family are known as your strong ties; people you talk to on an infrequent or spontaneous basis form the weak ties. A key realization in this field is that if you need help, in most cases your strong ties will be the people to look to, especially for emotional support and sharing. On the other hand, your strong ties are likely to have access to a lot of the same information as you, while weak ties are likely to move in different circles and may open doors to a whole set of new information, ideas and people to talk.

It’s been said that three’s a crowd, and networks support this statement. Moving from a tie with two actors to a triad or a combination of three actors, we jump to 18 ways for three people to interact (seeing each tie as either positive, negative, or non-existent). “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine” as The Grateful Dead once detailed.

Studying networks as sets of ‘triad’ connections has another important implication: networks have a strong tendency towards “closure”; i.e. for these triads to close up. In real life, the dominant effect is not the one described by the Grateful Dead, but rather that of “the friend of my friend is my friend”. As such, networks tend to become ‘small worlds’5 of the same interconnected people.

The Shire: bubbles or tribes of similar people

When we take the argumentation one step further, we can look at what happens at the ‘community’ level when you combine the building blocks. Studies on large network structures consistently show that the level of ‘clustering’ in social networks is much higher than one would expect if the formation happened according to a random pattern6. In other words, people flock together in tight-knight groups.

When we combine this observation with a second observation from social identity theory – people prefer to connect to ‘similar others’ – and you can see that you are likely to be ‘embedded’ in a group of like-minded people. We might call these clusters ‘bubbles’ or tribes7. A great example would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Shire from “The Lord of the Rings”: a social bubble that features known perimeters, shared norms and values and possibly inside jokes (another great example of a Shire-like environment would be a certain little campus we all know).

The Shire vs. wizards

Now, if we are talking about The Shire, where are the wizards? A long-standing debate in the literature of networks concerns the importance of ‘closure8’ vs. ‘brokerage9’. In other words, the advantage of being a Hobbit who hangs out around his village versus the advantage of being the middleman and connecting two such villages – let’s call the latter person Gandalf.

Roughly summarized, we could say that bubbles are good for safety and support, getting things done, stability and producing known things, while brokering between two ‘villages’ helps generate new ideas, and additionally places you in a great position to negotiate and potentially select or translate information in selective ways (this may well be where networks got their bad rep).

Influencing – Peregrin vs. Gandalf

Christakes and Fowler10 studied obesity in networks and discovered clusters of healthy and of unhealthy people, and found these pattern of clustering become stronger over time. While the paper focused on eating behavior, it is a powerful illustration of the ripple effect: your behavior influences those around you, who in turn influence those around them.

Going back to our Hobbit analogy: a hobbit change may be as powerful as the change brought about by a wizard (although Gandalf would want us to note a wizard is still far superior in transmitting information between distant locations).

Concluding remarks – the network perspective as an alternative metaphor

At our common Shire, also known as the Campus, I learnt that the paradigms a person chooses in life affect the outcome of both one’s research and observations and one’s research outcomes. This effect cannot be helped, but one can be made aware of this inevitable choice.

As a paradigm, I can only recommend the social network view, which takes people, their beliefs, habits, and behavior as interconnected rather than isolated. It shows the reality of the social structure shaping the options of the individual, but equally the power of the individual to shape their social reality.

If there’s a message in this odd compilation of network facts, it’s that we shouldn’t look at networking as an isolated activity, but rather take the insights offered by network theory as an invitation to venture out of our own circles every once in a while. Finally, don’t buy into the obligation to network, do think about what you have to share, stay critical and by all means, shake your head like Gandalf from time to time.


Hannah van der Deijl (‘04) is a PhD researcher and FWO fellow at the University of Leuven. Her research uses network analysis to gain a better understanding of the organization of science within universities, specifically looking at internal and external network structures of research groups.


1 For example, a search of the words “social network” in the NY times article section yields 9 articles on Facebook, 3 articles on Twitter and a further 8 articles on other social media on the first page of the search.

2 See for example the “The Gift: An Interdisciplinary Perspective“, (2005), edited by: Komter, A. 18–26. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, from prof. Komter’s course “The Gift” at UCU. When they are not, this is because of a difference in hierarchy or power. This undermines the story in which you need to network to receive help: help is always a two-way stream over the long run.

3 Perry-Smith, J.E. and C.E. Shalley, (2003), “The social side of creativity: a static and dynamic social network perspective” The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 89-106

4 Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, Friday, January 20, 1961

5 Milgram, S., (1967), “The Small-World Problem”, Psychology Today (May), 62-67.

6 Newman, M.E.J. (2001), “Scientific collaboration networks – I Network construction and fundamental results, Physical Review E, Volume 64, 016131

7 Seth, GodinTribes: We Need You to Lead Us, London, Piatkus, 2008

8 Coleman, J.S., “Social Theory, Social Research, and a Theory of Action”, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 91, No. 6 (May, 1986), pp. 1309-1335, Published by: The University of Chicago Press

9 Burt, R.S., (1992), “Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition”, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

10 Christakes, N.A. and J.H. Fowler, (2007), “The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years”, New England journal of Medicine, Vol. 357, No. 4.