“Networks of people” versus “Networks of people and artifacts”

January 1, 2007

The question is, do social networks reveal the mediating role of artifacts in social networks?

Comments on Nardi’s activity theory book (1996)

From: Nardi, B., Editor. (1996). Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Activity theorists argue that consciousness is not a set of discrete disembodied cognitive acts (decision making, classification, remembering), and certainly it is not the brain; rather, consciousness is located in everyday practice: you are what you do. And what you do is firmly and inextricably embedded in the social matrix of which every person is an organic part. This social matrix is composed of people and artifacts.

Examples of social networks involve people, but artifacts are not linked directly to the network but as parts of personal creations.
Example 1.
The Social Networks category of Ross Mayfield’s Weblog
Blog Tribe Social Network Mapping
16 members’ links to each other in Blog Tribe

Orgnet’s InFlow 3.0, a social network mapping and measurement tool was used for initial mapping.

Gerry and Valdis Krebs wrote a section of the APQC report: Building and Sustaining Communities of Practice that explains how social network analysis is used to discover communities of practice.

Two nodes/people are linked if they both confirm that they exchange information and resources to get their jobs done.

community practice launch

From PieSpy Social Network Bot
Inferring and Visualizing Social Networks on IRC

They model an IRC channel as a social network, as each individual user is an entity and their interactions imply relationships and flows.The network is modeled as a graph, consisting of a set of nodes and edges, where each node represents a user and an edge represents a relationship between a pair of nodes

Social network might also consist of artifacts and people.


This image ties people and artifacts (webpages).

From Nardi’s book:

The main concerns of activity theory are: consciousness, the asymmetrical relation between people and things, and the role of artifacts in everyday life.
Two insights to consciousness:
(1) we must know what the user is thinking to design properly
(2) we have a larger conceptual space into which to place differing user interface paradigms
Activity theory embeds consciousness in a wider activity system and describes a dynamic by which changes in consciousness are directly related to the material and social conditions
current in a person’s situation.
An important perspective contributed by activity theory is its insistence on the asymmetry between people and things.
Activity theory, with its emphasis on the importance of motive and consciousness—which belong only to humans—sees people and things as fundamentally different. People are not reduced to “nodes” or “agents” in a system; “information processing” is not seen as something to be modeled in the same way for people and machines.
In activity theory, artifacts are mediators of human thought and behavior; they do not occupy the same ontological space. This results in a more humane view of the relationship of people and artifacts, as well as squarely confronting the many real differences between people and things.

Isn’t that contraversial if Nardi assumes that:”`information processing” is not seen as something to be modeled in the same way for people and machines…and a more humane view of the relationship of people and artifacts, as well as squarely confronting the many real differences between people and things.”

Nardi assumes:

Cognitive science have pretty much ignored the study of artifacts, insisting on mental representations as the proper locus of study. Thus we have produced reams of studies on mentalistic phenomena such as “plans” and “mental models” and “cognitive maps,” with insufficient attention to the physical world of artifacts—their design and use in the world of real activity (Hutchins 1994). Cognitive science has concentrated on information, its
representation and propagation; activity theory is concerned with practice, that is, doing and activity, which significantly involve “the mastery of … external devices and tools of labor activity” (Zinchenko 1986).

CH 2.
Kalle Kuuti about artifacts:

An activity always contains various artifacts (e.g., instruments, signs, procedures, machines, methods, laws, forms of work organization). An essential feature of these artifacts is that they have a mediating role.
Relations between elements of an activity are not direct but mediated; for example, an instrument mediates between an actor and the object of doing; the object is seen and manipulated not “as such” but within the limitations set by the instrument (Engeström 1991b).

The question is, do social networks reveal the mediating role of artifacts in social networks?
Should we indicate artifacts on the same level as subjects, instead of purely subject-based networks? Theoretically, activity theory seems to allow it. My exerience in blogs is about two kinds of relationships:
I follow what some PEOPLE are writing in heir blogs.
I follow interesting ARTIFACTS in the blogs, not focusing on people.

The same ideas about using both subjects and artifacts in SNA have been revealed by Ralf Klamma at ECTEL 2006 conference.
He has coined the idea of the Cross Media Social Network Analysis
R. Klamma, M. Spaniol, Y. Cao, M. Jarke: Pattern-Based Cross Media Social Network Analysis for Technology Enhanced Learning in Europe, W. Nejdl, K. Tochtermann (Eds.): Innovative Approaches to Learning and Knowledge Sharing, Proceedings of the 1st European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning (EC-TEL 2006), Hersonissou, Greece, October 1-3, LNCS 4227, Springer-Verlag, pp.242-256

Apart from the network, there are three special types of actors that compose a social network. The member stands for an existing person or a sub-community. The medium enables the members to do certain activities, among which the most important ones are establishing communication links and exchanging information. The artefacts are objects created by the members, using some medium. The communication links among the members can be traced
using the artefacts. The basic social unit, which forms a digital social network is the member.

The Degree centrality, a property which measures in the most straight forward way the member’s social capital in the network ;
The Closeness centrality, taking into account the closeness of the member to every other member;
the Betweenness centrality, estimating the possibility of a member to influence the communication of others.
Efficiency is used to detect structural holes in the neighbourhood of a member. Structural hole is a relationship between two non redundant neighbours of a member. The more structural holes exist for a member, the greater his social capital is. The efficiency is a function of the time and the energy which a member invests into the relations with each neighbour.
We apply SNA on networks built by media, artefacts and individuals.

Starting with an individual who has internalized some media-specific knowledge, there are two ways to communicate with others. On the one hand, there is an option to present this information to others by localized actor-actor interaction, which allows the content’s social-
ization within the Community of Practice and is equivalent to the development of a shared history vice versa. On the other hand, individuals may also perform an actor transcription of their knowledge by generating new medial artefacts. This operation brings us into the lower section, where media from the digital social networks are processed. The externalized artefacts of a member are now further processed by the IS. This is done by a transcription of the medial artefacts. The final addressing closing the circle is the context depending presentation of the medial artefacts or a cross media concatenation.

Cross media Social Network Analysis
The communication between members is realized through the exchange of artefacts. An artefact is created by a member in a certain medium. The artefacts represent the information circulating in the digital social network. The types of artefacts, analyzed in PALADIN, are messages, threads, bursts, conversations, blog entries, comments, web pages, transactions, and feedbacks. The properties which are mostly used for the pattern definition are the author and the creation date.
artifacts and media - actions

CH 4

Activity theory, with its emphasis on the importance of motive and consciousness—which belong only to humans—sees artifacts and people as different. Artifacts are mediators of human thought and behavior; people and things are not equivalent. Distributed cognition, by contrast, views people and things as conceptually equivalent; people and artifacts are “agents” in a system. This is similar to traditional cognitive science, except that the scope of the system has been widened to include a collaborating set of artifacts and people rather than the narrow “man-machine” dyad of cognitive science. A human may act on a piece of knowledge in unpredictable, self-initiated ways, according to socially or personally defined motives. A machine’s use of information is always programmatic. The activity theory notion of artifacts as mediators of cognition seems a more reasoned way to
discuss relations between artifacts and people.

Although this comparison of activity theory and situted cognition theory viewpoint on artifacts brings out some differences, it is unclear, how to treat these ontologically different “artifacts” in social networks.

Maybe the semiotical viewpoint should be brought in somehow to show how people use artifacts to develop new meanings. In this the artifacts should be central in the network analysis. Central in the sense that they are like hubs for different meanings people interpret from them.
Maybe there are the social networks (networks of people who share meanings) and the networks of artifacts that enable different networks of people to transfer meanings. These two networks are mapped on top of each other, creating bridges between people in the communities.



  1. Hello Kai,

    a very nice collection of quotes and some interesting thoughts and reflections.

    Regarding your last paragraph I would propose to talk about “compatibility” of meanings in networks of people… instead of “sharing”. Even using the same set of artifacts individuals always construct meaning in a somewhat idiosyncratic way. And I have a feeling that you probably share this view… at least that’s what I read into your notion that artifacts “are like hubs for different meanings people interpret from them.”

    I have a similar problem with the notion of “transfer” of meaning via artifacts. This is a misleading notion… from my perspective.



  2. […] 25th, 2007 Interesting aspect of object-centered nature of social networks (which i also support https://tihane.wordpress.com/2007/01/01/networks-of-people-versus-networks-of-people-and-artifacts/) is discussed in the Yuri Engeström’ blog: […]

  3. By transfer i imagined how the meaning drifts from one culture to another (because people interpret it always in the frames of their own culture) and obtains different connotation.

  4. […] Now, what intriques me here is some contraversity between he community of practice ideas which seem to be following the taproot kind of central area ideas and the totally center-free rhizomic model, which I feel is much more likely in networked systems. […]

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