For decades before the advent of the most recent generation of web-based applications, social network analysis attempted to explain the relationships between individuals as a series of exchanges that can be mapped and plotted to explain past and predict future interactions. The underlying principles of social network analysis are the following:
• Actors are viewed as interdependent, not autonomous.
• Relational ties between actors are channels for the transferor “flow” of resources (either material or nonmaterial).
• Network models view the structural environment as providing opportunities for or constraints on individual action.
• Network models conceptualize structure (social, economic, political, etc.) as lasting patterns of relations among actors.
While social network analysis examines the connections between individuals, the intent is not to explain the individuals but rather to understand the more extensive network of connected actors. Thus, the unit of examination is larger—dyads (two actors and their relationship), triads (three actors), more significant subgroups of individuals, or entire systems.
Social network analysis in the Internet age has created an exponential supply of new data points in the study of networked interactions. In contrast, new social media tools provide greater visibility into networks.
The foundational elements of social network analysis
Each unit in a social network is described as a node. Nodes can be individuals outside of a system or inside, but social network analysis focuses primarily on nodes that are part of larger groups. A dyad is two nodes interacting with each other, as indicated by the line connecting A to B. A triad is similarly an interaction between three nodes—A, B, and C. From these basic building blocks, more extensive networks form that can describe how nodes interact with each other, which nodes hold more control or power, and how nodes are linked to each other through shared connections. The star network, line network, and circle network are ways of visualizing different kinds of interactions.