No, you don’t need a social network diagram

Are you, right this moment, trying to track down a fiendishly elusive murderer? Or are you perhaps almost finished cracking the structure and operations of an illegal arms shipment network that’s fuelling violence in one of the world’s many trouble spots?

If so then you may well have a legitimate reason to be drawing up social network diagrams, as these achingly-fashionable visual aids can help you parse a web of relationships in order to find out who’s in hock with who, and who should go to jail.

But if you’re not currently trying to crack a clearly defined mystery of one sort or another, then odds are that you don’t need a social network diagram. In fact, odds on, if you’re working on one without a clearly defined mystery to untangle, then you’re almost certainly slipping further away from whatever your actual goal is. By working on social network diagrams without a crystal clear rationale, you’re almost certainly failing.

There are two reasons that your social network diagram is probably taking you away from success, rather than towards it.

  1. It’s time consuming and expensive to obtain, scrub and then visualise the data. Even with open source or cheap tools, it’s far from trivial unless you’re just taking a look at your own social network on Facebook.
  2. Once complete, a social network diagram is only a method of coming to a conclusion. It is definitely not the conclusion itself. Think of all those movies in which people make social network diagrams on actual walls with bits of string. The conclusion of those movies occurs when the bad guy goes to jail or takes a dive off the top of a building. The story isn’t over when the last pin in sunk into the chipboard.

So please, unless you’re working on a tightly defined problem that you’re struggling to answer, put down the social network diagram, put your hands on your head, and wait for the cops to do the rest.