Reflections on NetWORKS: From Alchemy to Chemistry

by Stephen Kuperberg

Networks are slippery beasts. Like electrons subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in physics, they defy easy analysis. Pin one down long enough to describe it, and it may morph into something other. Try to describe its properties, and those properties may inexorably change.

The NetWORKS gathering in Boulder allowed those of us working with networks regularly to begin to create a common lexicon around our common experiences regarding these exotic new animals in the bestiary of social change. What we individually struggled with over participation and ideology gained greater understanding when speaking in the common language of bounded and unbounded networks; what we individually intuited regarding relationship-building and reach gained greater conceptual potency when we collectively identified bonding and bridging capital.

“Networks are like alchemy,” one participant observed; but by setting out to be rigorous in our understanding, alchemy begins to transform into chemistry, and then to engineering, and perhaps ultimately into the intuitively mundane understanding of everyday life.

But even that analysis risks losing the spark and excitement that networks pose as a potential tool to social change, and we still struggle to name it without losing its essence.

What is that elusive philosopher’s stone about networks that takes a simple concept like an online video and breathes into it something approaching the animating force of life itself—something so mysterious and even menacing that we can only call it “viral?” What is the kabbalistic mark that a network can impart, that transforms an idea into a cause, a cause into a movement—a movement into something that changes the world? How do we begin to capture that lightning in our primitive bottles?

Networks offer all of that promise; and, like all good alchemy, slip away and reward with nothing, as well. An online video fails to spread; a cause fails to garner attention; the network, a fickle mistress, turns away uninterested and occupies its time sharing pictures of laughing babies, dancing kittens, and celebrity gaffes. Unbounded, unfettered, defying control or centralization or description, networks buck and shake their erstwhile wranglers, creating unpredictable and even contrary outcomes. What works well in hierarchies fails miserably in networks, as well as in reverse. One does not substitute for the other.

In the midst of this esoteric discussion, NetWORKS was also practical. When the subject of Israel was raised, participants responded with a depth of experience and emotion that unearthed many issues around which our community craves connection in a way that networks are uniquely suited to provide. The Israel on Campus Coalition, itself a network organization, provided some experience and examples of success for examination, but offered challenges and recurring issues as well.

There was so much more to learn and to explore. NetWORKS was one installment in what must be an ongoing discussion. But that discussion has, and will continue, to provide vital understanding to a community that can only continue to thrive by embracing new approaches.

Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, a networked national organization dedicated to creating positive campus climate change for Israel.

Cross-posted from Networks