confessions of a social spatial navigator

Network analysts can roughly be divided into two camps: those who look at the “whole” network and those who concentrate on individuals and their “local” set of network connections.  One problem often raised about network analysis is that the two camps have relatively little to do with each other.

Indulging in my side interest in urban transportation planning, I came across a discussion of the different ways that people navigate physical space.  It got me thinking about parallels to the way people navigate social space and about how different people approach the question of social “navigation”.  It speaks to this bridging of the two network camps.

First, some terminology:

Humans have two methods of navigation.  Spatial navigators can construct maps in their heads as they experience a place, and also tend to be good at using maps as navigational aids.  Narrative navigators navigate by creating or following verbal directions.  For spatial navigators, the answer to the question where? is a position in mapped space.  For narrative navigators, the answer to where? is a story about how to get there.  Obviously, this is a spectrum; many of us are in the middle with partial capabilities in both directions.

The same concept, put differently:

[Giuseppe] Iaria and McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot demonstrated in a study they published six years ago that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories. One is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks—creating a map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop is in relationship to the movie theater and to the Wendy’s. The other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: Get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park.

Lets put this in terms of social structural navigation.  Say you have a hipster friend who wants to go on a date with a Polish kid who the friend has been eying for a while, but doesn’t see a route in.   Plenty of people think about social structure in the same way that roughly half of the population thinks about physical space; that is in narrative terms: “So, hipster from Williamsburg, you want to figure out how to ask that Polish kid out on a date?  Well, Pauline used to own the store with Mitch, but they split up and he started his own store.  I think that kid works for Mitch and I am going to dinner with Pauline so I can see if she’d ask Mitch to make an introduction.”

Myself, however, I’m a spatial navigator when it comes to physical geography.  When I ask my phone for directions, it initially pops up with a series of “turn left here, go right there” instructions which I ignore completely as I head straight for the map.  I then assess the whole map and adjust the route the computer gives me in light of information I might have, for instance, that I know there’s a really great cupcake shop on a slightly altered route.  In fact, I do this in a lot of areas involving instructions: for instance, I tend to improvise based on recipes I look up rather than following exactly what the cook-book says.

And, not surprisingly, I do it too when it comes to social space.  Rather than specific individuals and their connections, I tend to think in terms of cliques and the key people within those cliques.  Carrying on the example from before:  “Mitch and Pauline don’t talk any more.  No love lost in that breakup.  But, I’ve noticed that Mitch has a few Polish kids who are here for the summer working for him.  I don’t know if this kid is one of them, but I see a bunch of them downing vodka shots at the Pig Wednesday night.  That’s when you and the rest of the hipsters are normally drinking G&Ts at the Governor Bradford.  I can’t guarantee it, but you might want to consider boogieing across the street.  I bet he’ll be there.”

Both approaches will get you to the destination, but the cognitive map that gets you there is different.

This distinction has the potential to be very useful both for how we teach network concepts and also for pointing toward research directions attempting to bridge individual and network levels of analysis. 

First, I suspect that a lot of network researchers are, like me, spatial thinkers.  But many (if not most) of our students and colleagues are narrative thinkers when it comes to social structure.  Knowing that might allow me to do what Google Maps does: provide both a narrative and a spatial approach and let my audience choose which makes more sense to them.  Or, might it make sense to be explicit: “we normally think about our social worlds in narrative terms.  But I am going to teach you how to think spatially.”

Substantively, the literature on how people navigate in physical space suggests that narrative navigators are more accurate and efficient in getting from point A to point B.  However, they are also less able to adapt to changing circumstances like an obstruction on the route than spatial navigators.

A final point.  The transportation discussion raises another issue which seems worth importing to the world of social networks: Some geographers worry that the widespread use of GPS navigation may be degrading innate cognitive navigational abilities.

The increase in GPS use […] has meant that people spend less time learning details about where they are at any moment. British researchers have found that drivers using GPS formed less detailed and accurate cognitive maps of their routes than drivers who use paper maps. Similarly, a University of Tokyo study found that pedestrians using GPS-enabled cell phones had a harder time figuring out where they were and where they had come from. Their navigational aids had allowed them to turn off their hippocampi [the brain region responsible for cognitive maps].

To many, the beauty of GPS devices is precisely that we no longer have any need to assemble cognitive maps. But Cornell University researcher Gilly Leshed argues that knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around. Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual. For the GPS users Leshed and her colleagues have observed, the virtual world on the screens of their devices seemed to take over from the real world that whizzed by outside. “Instead of experiencing physical locations, you end up with a more abstract representation of the world,” she says.

The parallel to Facebook and similar sites is evident.  One of the few things I valued about Friendster was that one of its early incarnations drew a rudimentary network map that would allow you to see the connections between yourself and any one of your friends. Facebook, on the other hand, simply shows you who your mutual contacts are.  Does this suggest that a narrative approach is more compelling in the on-line sphere?  Or, is it simply a matter of the fact most people don’t learn to read a network map the way many of us learn to read physical maps and so getting a sense of the overall “picture” is less useful?

More importantly, does the rise of on-line social networks degrade our innate ability to think and navigate in social space (regardless of whether one’s approach is narrative or spatial)?  Or, does it provide tools for navigating that otherwise would not exist thereby acting as a complement — rather than supplement — to innate social mapping approaches?

Lastly, to Leshed’s point, substitute the idea of “identity” for “place” and you are left with the question of how one’s sense of meaning in social space — that is, social identity — is being shaped  by the widespread availability of social network information on line.  It is by going down the “wrong” alley and happening on a totally unexpected physical space that one really finds one’s place in a geographic sense.  I suspect it works very much the same way in social space as well: we all spend time bumbling around a new social environment, going down alleys that ultimately end up being false starts.  But some “wrong turns” become personal revelations.  And even the wrong turns that go nowhere give you a sense of the bigger picture.  Does the online social environment make social serendipity more or less likely?  And might there be differences based on whether one is a spatial or a narrative thinker when it comes to social space?


Written by seansafford

August 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Sean, brilliant post. I have little to add, but this brings back a lot of memories and makes me think about connections then and now. Strong work.



    August 24, 2010 at 7:35 pm

  2. Love this! Here is another illustration from xkcd of the narrative vs. spatial mismatch: “I Don’t Want Directions.”

    Personally, I adore maps and use both approaches, but find the narrative cues triggered in places I have lived a very long time to be a burden because the cues are so overloaded with information: there’s that upscale Italian place, that used to be a TGI Friday’s, where so-and-so’s 7th grade birthday party was, that before then was a Taco Bell that burned, and so-and-so’s parents got divorced right after that, etc. I am sure this only gets worse as one gets older, and I often find these narratives pretty depressing as they involve people who are now gone or development of open space.

    Even in cities I have only visited a few times, if I am on the SuperShuttle route to or from the airport, I find myself picking out totally ordinary strip mall landmarks and unusual intersection angles that I recognize from trips 10 or 15 years ago. It kills me that I am wasting perfectly good brain space with Orlando Chik-fil-As and Tucson car dealerships. Sometimes I don’t remember whether I have been to the city before until I am on the airport feeder road and a mental map of it magically appears!

    Social networks are a totally different story. I have zero memory for other people’s relationships to each other, but I find that lots of people maintain elaborate mental maps of these connections. My best friend can tell me every nth-degree relationship of people we knew in college but has asked me on many occasions how to get back to her own house. Maybe the spatial vs. narrative ability differences are less pronounced than geographic vs social acuity in general?



    August 24, 2010 at 10:28 pm

  3. Really interesting post Sean. It reminds me of Krackhardt’s work on cognitive networks.

    It also reminded me of my experience of moving from the West, where one can navigate spatially using mountains and other physical landmarks, to the Midwest. I suddenly had to adapt to a new physical terrain, absent the beloved mountains that I had spent my life using for navigation. I quickly moved from being a spatial navigator to a narrative navigator. Much of our ability to spatially navigate depends on a deep familiarity with the physical/social terrain. If you’re suddenly thrust into a new environment in which the old symbols and meanings are no longer available, you have to rely on specifics and not generalities.

    Somewhere in here is a study of how people learn social structures.


    brayden king

    August 26, 2010 at 1:46 pm

  4. Nice post, Sean—very interesting issues.

    Speaking for myself, the sort of thing you’re describing is much more interesting than finding new ways for researchers to model social space or gain insight from those models.

    How do people do it?

    I believe the project of understanding how people actually build, model and access their understanding of social space is a promising and important research program.

    If this doesn’t get you kicked out of ASA, you could call a behavioral approach to social network analysis.



    August 26, 2010 at 2:08 pm

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