A question about network theory and nu-social networks

I’m currently reading a biography of the California artist Robert Irwin, best known for his conceptual and environmental art. I’ll try to post a recap when I’m done. Early in his career he spent a lot of time in LA artist collective Ferus, whose members continually groused and obsessed over their peers in the New York art world.

This reminisce reminds me of my limited experience with network theory, the body of work contending that social networks create the only truly successful period. Network theory’s mainstream spokesman is probably Richard Florida, but I’m better acquainted with Randall Collins’s mammoth The Sociology of Philosophies, which argues that there are no great lone thinkers, no posthumous geniuses. Our body of intellectual achievement comes out of coteries and salons: think Bloomsbury, think Left Bank, think Vienna Circle.* Brilliant loners usually belonged to social networks whose members history has largely forgotten.

I’m entering a weird period in my life in which just about all of my friendships are maintained online. I often use in-person social networks as a spur to my intellect, and worry about what happens to my mental acuity in a vacuum. Do online social networks provide the same benefit that Collins’s examples did? Will the next artists’ group arise on Google Wave? What do you think?

*I should probably mention that Collins girds his argument with many case studies from Asian social networks as well–his thesis is not restricted to the West or to modernity.

1 Response to “A question about network theory and nu-social networks”

  1. 1 Matt Thomas June 15, 2009 at 2:35 pm

    I was re-watching The Fountainhead the other day on TCM late at night, and was struck – as I usually am – by Howard Roark’s speech at the end of the film in which, as a mouthpiece for Ayn Rand, Roark makes the opposite point than the one you make above: namely, that there are only lone geniuses. To quote from the film: “Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision. The great creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood alone against the men of their time.” (Anneli Rufus makes a similar, though more nuanced, point in Party of One, a book I’ve been pimping hard lately.) Without getting all Randian and Junior High School about it, I think there’s something to Roark’s point here in that some ideas/people have been deemed genius by us today precisely because they went against the status quo of their times.

    Now, small groups can definitely be against the status quo – I’m sure you can think of many – but surely sometimes such groups work to enforce a sort of status quo-like mediocrity, a water-downed consensus that makes whatever they’re doing a tad less revolutionary. (Politics and academe come to mind here.) In other words, I think Collins is right in many cases, but I do think there’s something to the lone genius, however unpopular such a notion might be. Mainly because being a lone genius isn’t romantic, despite what you may have heard. In fact, history suggests that, more often than not, it can get you killed, accused of being a witch, run out of town, banished, etc. I can think of dozens of examples here, figures ranging from Antonio Gramsci to Orson Welles (both of whom, it might be argued, belonged to collectives, now that I think of it, but that’s another discussion).

    The internet, like a a coffee shop, might foster collectives, or it might provide a platform for lone geniuses to speak to the public. It all depends on the person and the idea.

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