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Networking on the Network (NotN), Part 2

by Michael Nielsen on August 10, 2003

Update: This post (and the previous post) used to contain a link to a local copy of the essay “Networking on the Network”. I’ve taken it down in response to a request from the author; it can (probably) be found by searching online.

Notes inspired by sections 1 and 2

Professional networking is an incredibly useful skill. The direct impact of effective networking is to improve both your own and others’ research. As an indirect benefit, by being more useful to your professional community, and by making that fact known, networking has implications for your career – jobs, promotions, grants, and so on, that can help ensure both your security, and successfully accomplishing your goals.

Networking is, however, a complex skill that needs to be learnt. Phil Agre’s essay, NotN, is primarily about learning this skill, especially in the context of electronic networking, although many of the same ideas apply also to other forms of networking.

The concept of “networking” is widely reviled amongst physicists. People speak of “schmoozing” or “playing politics”, often with a slight sneer, or with a feeling that it is a necessary evil. The underlying feeling seems to be one of shame – it is something to be hidden from sight, not celebrated, and certainly not practiced, or thought about in any deep way.

In my opinion, this feeling has much in common with the sense, shared by many, that occupations such as lawyer, stock-trader, manager, or banker, are somehow less virtuous than occupations which directly produce a tangible good, such as medical doctor, farmer, engineer, or factory worker.

This is to misunderstand how our society functions. Our society engages in many truly amazing forms of co-operative behaviour. A town of a few thousand people may well have a fire station, ambulance, school, library, post office, supermarket, petrol station, and many other amenities. Each one of these is an amazing phenomenon, involving an enormous amount of co-operation – think of how many people are involved in producing goods in the supermarket, and how many levels of co-operation there are!

Update: This post (and the previous post) used to contain a link to a local copy of the essay “Networking on the Network”. I’ve taken it down in response to a request from the author; it can (probably) be found by searching online.

Notes inspired by sections 1 and 2

Professional networking is an incredibly useful skill. The direct impact of effective networking is to improve both your own and others’ research. As an indirect benefit, by being more useful to your professional community, and by making that fact known, networking has implications for your career – jobs, promotions, grants, and so on, that can help ensure both your security, and successfully accomplishing your goals.

Networking is, however, a complex skill that needs to be learnt. Phil Agre’s essay, NotN, is primarily about learning this skill, especially in the context of electronic networking, although many of the same ideas apply also to other forms of networking.

The concept of “networking” is widely reviled amongst physicists. People speak of “schmoozing” or “playing politics”, often with a slight sneer, or with a feeling that it is a necessary evil. The underlying feeling seems to be one of shame – it is something to be hidden from sight, not celebrated, and certainly not practiced, or thought about in any deep way.

In my opinion, this feeling has much in common with the sense, shared by many, that occupations such as lawyer, stock-trader, manager, or banker, are somehow less virtuous than occupations which directly produce a tangible good, such as medical doctor, farmer, engineer, or factory worker.

This is to misunderstand how our society functions. Our society engages in many truly amazing forms of co-operative behaviour. A town of a few thousand people may well have a fire station, ambulance, school, library, post office, supermarket, petrol station, and many other amenities. Each one of these is an amazing phenomenon, involving an enormous amount of co-operation – think of how many people are involved in producing goods in the supermarket, and how many levels of co-operation there are!

One of the single most significant differences between our society and earlier societies is in the formation of institutions and tools that encourage such large-scale co-operation. Lawyers, bankers, managers, etcetera, are pivotal figures in enabling these forms of co-operation to come about. In short, there are many professional people who maintain and grow the network surrounding us all, a network whose collective behaviour enables me to go to the supermarket each day, and not be surprised to discover apricots from Turkey, oranges from California, and eggs from who-knows-where. This is an enormous contribution to our collective well-being, and one of the major differences between our current society, and earlier societies.

(I first really appreciated this due to a stimulating book review by Cosma Shalizi).

Topics for further thought
• What institutions encourage networking amongst physicists? A list to start off with includes the science citation index, the preprint server, the conferencing tradition (including institutions like the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics), and scientific societies.
• What institutionalized behaviours in the physics community discourage co-operation? How might those institutions be changed?
• Can you think of any new institutions that would result in more effective co-operative behaviour amongst physicists? (Two people I admire, Stewart Brand and Robin Hanson, are essentially institutional architects, coming up with new ways for people to co-operate. Ben Franklin is another in the same tradition.)

At a personal level, networking is a key component in enabling such co-operative effects. People sometimes regard networking as something that takes time away from doing “real research”. If the networking is done effectively, this is nonsense. It is true that people may play politics in unethical ways, or follow fashion in ways not conducive to good research. But effective networking is an extremely valuable way of improving both your own and others’ research, and of making a more valuable contribution than you would have otherwise.

My own impression, which I have little hard data to support, is that the most outstanding researchers in any field are usually quite adept networkers, who keep themselves well plugged into the field. It would be interesting to determine through proper studies to what extent such networking affects one’s ability to contribute.

Finally, I should mention that an additional legitimate goal of networking is ensuring that your contributions are appropriately recognized. To a great extent this may be accomplished automatically through networking for other purposes. For example, collaborators tend to be quite willing to give each other a great deal of credit and advertise each others’ work, even on projects that are not shared, and to help out in getting jobs, promotions, etcetera. More generally, though, I think the subject of recognition and networking is sufficiently complicated to deserve a later post (or posts) of its own.

Topics for discussion
• How can networking enhance one’s ability to do research?
• What negative effects can networking have?
• How might one design a study to determine the effects of networking on scientific research?

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