The Power of Hypernetworks

by Seth Cohen

“When we change the way we communicate, we change society.”
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Without question, we are living in an era of exponentially expanding connection and communication, the impact of which we are just beginning to understand. New technologies, coupled with an emerging sense of interconnectedness that is the result of the ability to share ideas and information instantaneously and globally, are changing the way we view ourselves, our communities, and our roles in helping to connect and repair the world.

As a result, this networked era – better yet, this hypernetworked era – brings with it a richness of opportunity but also a vexing challenge: How will we harness the power of our networks to create a lasting, meaningful, and community-based impact on society? Who among us will help transform the value-neutral concept of “connectedness” to the aspirational concept of kehillah, community, that so many of us aspire to create in contemporary Jewish life?

Network theory – the science and understanding of how networks function – is a rich field that is constantly evolving and, with it, our understanding of its application to Jewish community development. While there has been much written about the “networked nonprofit,” there is one particular concept of network theory that has yet to be fully leveraged by the broader Jewish community: the role of individual boundary-spanners (individuals who cross over multiple networks) and their place in creating “glocal” networks that enable individual members to draw on global perspectives and connections to make a local impact.

In the field of social network analysis (SNA), boundary-spanners play a particularly important function: They serve as the bridge of information and insight across multiple nodes of a network and even across multiple networks. Boundary-spanners in networks not only enable the efficient passage of information that might otherwise get “stuck” in a particular part of the network, but also serve as the builders of the network, reaching beyond the existing structures and connecting with nodes that have not yet been accessed by the overall network structure.

Historically, boundary-spanners (without being named as such) have supported connections across Jewish diasporic networks. Today, they connect various pockets of Jewish life to a shared heritage, evolving traditions, and rich culture. Fueled by digital interconnectedness and increased mobility, individuals are helping to weave together a new tapestry of Jewish life: They are pulling out threads of ideas shared by members of their global networks and sewing them into their own local community networks.

Although the terminology may be new, glocal Jewish networks powered by boundary-spanners are not novel. National organizations like B’nai Brith International and the youth movements of the past served as a framework in which boundary-spanners could do their work. In many ways, the Zionist movement proved to be a model of glocal networks, ultimately resulting in one of the great glocal achievements of Jewish aspiration – the creation and development of the State of Israel.

What is different about contemporary communities of boundary-spanners is their continuous self-generation, their coordination in informal ways, and their ability to share information virtually and instantaneously. The “sharing economy” of the present day is not just about sharing goods and services, but also about the efficient sharing of the motivations, competencies, and capacities of individuals to weave networks in self-binding and reciprocal ways. In this respect, boundary-spanners use the modern tools of communication (social networks that seemingly obsolesce as rapidly as they develop) to leverage personal and collective knowledge capital to help catalyze connections and the globalization of ideas within their respective networks. These networks are often linked extraorganizationally, rather than within conventional organizational frameworks, resulting in the weaving together of “networks of networks” that are dynamic, expanding, and global.

Nevertheless, as it is often said, a network is only as good as the ideas and values that flow through it. Similarly, boundary-spanners can only serve to strengthen networks if they are motivated (and have the requisite skills) to share ideas across networks and to inspire the recipients to act on them. The most important question we can ask about boundary-spanners in our own communities, then, is how we can support them in creating networks of meaning and impact. The future of our community, our kehillah, may depend on it.

Seth Cohen is Director of Network Initiatives for the Schusterman Family Foundation, where he helps to lead the foundation’s efforts to identify, connect, and support global networks of young Jewish adults to enable them to create Jewish experiences and communities for themselves and their peers.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma June 2014, as part of a larger conversation about Jewish neighborhoods in flux.