i was chatting with a friend (who shall remain nameless) in the pub the other night and he shared with me his excitement of discovering that he can connect to elvis presley in 5 steps - or 6 degrees of separation as it has become known! that is to say he can show a relational connection from him to someone to someone else and so on until he connects to elvis in five steps/6 connections. this phenomena often takes people by surprise. how can it be possible that there is that level of connectivity? welcome to small world theory...
i was first introduced to this by steve collins who gave a presentation on networks at a network gathering of uk mission leaders a couple of years back - the presentation from it is worth a look. clay shirky devotes a chapter to it in his book here comes everybody. this is the third blog reflection on the book. if you haven't followed along then parts 1 and 2 are here
part 1. sharing, co-operation and collective action
part 2. i participate therefore i am
so what's the big (or small) deal? if you are in a small group of friends everyone connects to everyone else pretty easily but it doesn't take long before that suddenly requires a huge number of connections for everyone to connect to everyone else. so what actually happens in practice is that people connect to a relatively small number of people (their small world). but as long as that small group has one or two people who also connect to people in the wider network in another small group, it's only one step removed to reach anyone else in the network through the connector. this is how most networks work - a mix of dense and sparse connections rather than everyone linked to everyone. these people who focus externally are connectors. most people are quite happy existing in a small world but connectors often hold an astonishing level of connectivity across small worlds. six degrees of separation works because these people create huge short cuts and it's often these connectors that people start thinking about unconsciously when looking for that connection in a conversation to establish common ground.
i tried drawing a network but it looked terrible so i won't inflict it on you. but imagine a group of five small groups - grace in london, sanctuary in birmingham, hold this space in melbourne, sanctus1 in manchester and safespace in telford. now there is no way that everyone in each of those groups will connect to everyone else in the other groups and why would they? i have picked five groups that i connect between but i am not the only connector. but because of the connectors the insights/gifts flow round the whole network just as well or have the potential to do so. so insights about new monasticism and setting sail in mission from safespace, wisdom around engaging in islamic contexts from sanctuary, alt worship approach in prisons and creative liturgy writing from hold this space, mission at mind body spirit festivals from sanctus 1, worship ideas and leadership without anyone paid from grace etc etc can all flow. and this really is a microcosm - if we really mapped the connections in the emerging church and alt worship network and started adding all the creative connections it would be unbelievable to think what gifts and connections there are. and if i now think about connectors i relate to outside that it blows my mind - my friend yemi is an unbelievable connector into the majority black churches, i was with matt who is mr connector in france etc etc etc...
the obvious rider to this is that some groups don't necessarily have natural external connectors and i know groups who think external conections are a waste of time altogether. but the benefit you'll gain by encouraging someone(s) to focus externally will be huge so it's worth thinking about, even though most people remain locally focused. shirky calls these two types of relating bonding and bridging capital. how much of each do the key small worlds you are in have? is it a good balance? this of course applies to the photography group/world i am in or any other kind of social group...
one of the interesting sections in clay shirky's chapter is a story of a firm that had new management and a piece of research was done to see which managers came up with the most creative solutions. the discovery was that those that were least locked into their own department brought the most creativity i.e. lots of their connections were external. as he put it bridging capital puts people at greater risk of having good ideas. in any network there is a balance to be had. the temptation is to want to keep it tight - i.e. relate to people with similar passions/interests etc as you share concerns, struggles etc. but the network will stifle if it is too tight - it needs random elements and connections that are totally different to bring a creative edge. how you strike that balance i have no idea but for some people i think it's counter intuitive.
this all got me thinking about the amazing network that cms is - a global mission network of small worlds and connectors. part of the thinking around the importance of the other in cms is that we only really know who jesus is as we see christ's many faces, theological takes, and gifts round the world wide body/network/multitude of christ. but we need to be intentional about connecting with difference rather than just sameness so there can be an interchange. the tragedy of the network of christ (church) globally at the moment is that we seem to be following the opposite instinct and gathering together with people who mirror our own theological takes!
shirky's book in large part is on the new environment and the effects of new social media tools. in terms of networking i guess it's obvious why we are talking about this. social media tools mean we are relating in small worlds and connectors all the time without even thinking about it. and the scale of networking response/influence can be on a huge scale when things start to flow.
this theory about small worlds obviously relates to why i think margaret wheatley's process - name * connect * nourish * illuminate - (which i blogged about a couple of days ago) is so significant because when people connect and those connections are nourished gifts flow and the world can be changed for the better. and the great thing about it is that none of us can really control it and we are all severely limited in our relational capacity (or monkey sphere as it's known in the theory!) so we only ever see a part of the whole - we can simply participate and get in the flow as it were...
great post jonny. i read it making linkages to pete ward's liquid church and his call for us to be 'selling spiritual product.' in other words, that as well as the need to stimulate relational networks, the flow of product - books, proost downloads, websites - are all ways that stimulate (and mess with) connections.
Posted by: steve | October 10, 2008 at 04:37 AM
this is also about catholicity...those alt.worship groups/emerging churches that have no 'connectors' lose some of the importance of catholicity and hence miss one of the four marks of church...the question then is can you be church, as defined by the creeds, with no external connectors?
Posted by: Ben Edson | October 10, 2008 at 06:09 PM
Ben, this is probably not the place of this, but what happens when we ask your question the other way? Can you be church when you define yourself by the creeds as catholic, yet by your self-definition of catholic (ie Orthodox or Catholic or fundamentalist), exclude others (ie alt.worship) who might be the church?
it seems to me that the marks of catholicity are often used as gatekeepers of status quo,
Posted by: steve | October 13, 2008 at 04:12 AM
ben, steve i think both things are probably good instincts to hold together!
Posted by: jonny | October 14, 2008 at 09:04 PM
oh jonny, you're so irenic
Posted by: steve | October 14, 2008 at 11:46 PM
Creeds do exclude and so there needs to be a generous approach to them, perhaps a desire to grow into the four marks...a small group that meets with no external connections can be church, but perhaps it misses the fullness of being church by not being connected. Creeds were written to exclude so can be unhelpful, but at the same time give definition perhaps something that we need.
Posted by: Ben Edson | October 15, 2008 at 09:11 AM
Facebook makes you realise this sort of thing quite quickly. Everyone knows everyone and you don't realise just how this works until you see the networks start to build in your friend lists.
Posted by: Robb | October 15, 2008 at 01:54 PM
thanks for taking the time to form these three posts, jonny. i just finished the book and then read your comments and i'm grateful for the way you framed shirky's ideas for the people of god....and it fits with the spirit of the last post that i'm writing this from kentucky :)
peace to you.
Posted by: geoff | October 24, 2008 at 05:31 PM