October 22, 2005

Research Notes: small world networks, extended cognition, the mangrove effect, blogs

Follow-up to Research Plan: ideas for researching networking, narrowcasting and broadcasting by bloggers from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Small world networks, of the kind that I think exists in Warwick Blogs, are a form of 'extended cognition' as described by Andy Clark. They are a case of interpersonal extended cognition, a form of social thinking. The "mangrove effect" is another form of public extended cognition. How do these two forms relate? Is the "mangrove effect" visible in Warwick Blogs?

As I descibe in a previous entry , Clark uses the lifecyle of a mangrove island as a metaphor for how we sometimes use public language to speculatively play with ideas and see how they grow. I summarise metaphor as follows:

a mangrove seeds itself in shallow water, grows roots, traps other roots and particles, forms a network of roots with other mangroves that seed nearby (helped by the first mangrove), and eventually forms a more solid island within the sea.

Clark's argument is that by stating words publicly using an external cognitive apparatus (a web log would be a good example), even when they do not represent well formed ideas, thoughts and sense can be encouraged to form. We can easily play with the publicy stated words, manipulating them and seeing what emerges as they connect with other words. As a social process, involving other minds, this technique can lead in unexpected and successful directions.

It seems to me that "mangrove" style social thinking could be a core activity of the localized cliques that are probably the context for most blog entries. The clique tends to select phrases to be repeated locally, and provides opportunities for social thinking in a controlled space. But the small world network of Warwick Blogs offers two other possibilities:

  1. ideas that become well-formed can be transmitted to other localized networks through 'hubs' (people or pages that are authoritative in presenting selections of worthwhile content);
  2. ideas can also just free-float from one clique to another, for example via the "show all" page, where they may take root, or at least make the transmission through a hub more likely (hearing a message through several channels makes it more likely to be trusted and valued).

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